Proud Company

Breaking The Color Barrier 50 Years Ago, Baltimore Firefighters Fought Back Flames Of Racism Even As They Protected The City.

October 15, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

"Even if [other firefighters] didn't like you, they'd teach you. Because the life you saved might be theirs." - - Charles T. Miller

No plaque marks the old-fashioned, workaday 36 Engine House on Edmondson Avenue as a place where history was made. But it used to be the city's fire training school and, 50 years ago today, it was where 10 men broke the color line to become Baltimore's first African-American firefighters.

Baltimore was a segregated city back then. No black person had served in the fire department from its founding in 1858 until Oct. 15, 1953, when the 10 men began their training.

It wasn't a sudden burst of civic enlightenment that allowed blacks to become firefighters.

"The Afro American, Urban League and the NAACP had been trying to integrate the department since 1935," says James Crockett, 79, who was among the first blacks to take the fire department test in July 1953. He's now president of the city's Board of Fire Commissioners.

"What happened," says Crockett, who was with the third class to train, "was that the City of Baltimore could not get enough white people to take the examination and pass it. So the International Underwriters Association said that if [the city] didn't get enough [firemen] they would raise the insurance rates."

The Afro and the civil rights groups prevailed on Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. to open the examination to blacks. They recruited candidates through churches and other organizations.

About 150 African-Americans showed up for the test at the Maryland Institute's old technical school at Market Place and Baltimore Street. Forty-one passed, with a black man named Charles L. Scott making the highest score, black or white. He was among those who began training 50 years ago today.

The first black firefighters will be celebrated tonight at a dinner at the Eubie Blake Center, 847 N. Howard St., sponsored by a committee of African-Americans who have served in the fire department.

The other day, seven of the men got together at their engine house academy on Edmondson Avenue and recalled the early days.

Roy Parker, who's 77 now and lives in Columbia, and Charles T. Miller, 78, were in that first class. Only four of the first 10 are left. Lindsay Washington Jr., who lives in Pasadena, couldn't make it this day. And they've lost track of a man named Ernest H. Barnes. Parker served 27 years in the department, Miller, 30 years, every one of them with his trademark pipe clenched between his teeth.

John T. Murray, 79, came into the department with Crockett in the third class from the 1953 test. The department divided the black recruits into about 10 a class. Murray stayed 32 years and became the fourth African-American captain. James L. Edwards, 75, was in the third class, too. He spent almost all of his 39 years as a firefighter with Engine Company 44.

"That's way up in Roland Park," Crockett jibes. "They don't fight fires there."

"We had good fire prevention," Edwards retorts.

Herman Williams, who went on to become the first black chief of the department, was in the third class, too. But he's not here on this day.

Herlin R. Davenport, 75, who served 35 years at houses from South Baltimore to Liberty Heights Avenue, came from the fourth class, and Thomas Carroll, 76, a 30-year veteran, was in the fifth class. Carroll served for 10 years with 10 Truck at Lafayette Avenue and Strickland Street, one of the busiest houses in the city.

They all looked to be in pretty good shape, as if eating smoke for a couple decades was a healthful diet. They laughed and joked and shared memories of hot fires and the cold reception they received at many firehouses.

Miller, with his pipe, was assigned to Engine 8 at Lafayette Avenue and Gilmor Street. "You'll no longer rest the rest of your life," they told him.

"We were considered a hot company," he says "We were averaging 2,000 runs a year. ... You learned your job and you learned it fast.

"Even if [other firefighters] didn't like you, they'd teach you," he says. "Because the life you saved might be theirs."

That's a kind of mantra of his. He uses it a lot.

"Oh, you had a lot of guys down there [who] didn't like you," he says. "You'd come in there. You're black and he's white and all that stuff. He didn't like you."

Murray, a brawny guy who served three years in the Army during World War II, recites a litany of petty humiliations.

"Separate beds, separate washbowls, separate showers, separate toilets," he says. "Eating equipment, plates and everything, different. They didn't want you to use the pots and pans. Bring your own. They didn't want you touch the TV. Didn't want you to read the paper. Didn't want you to drink coffee out of the pot with them."

"You had to make the coffee," Crockett says. "But you couldn't drink it."

Carroll explains: "The last watch at night in the morning made the coffee, but they wouldn't let you drink it."

He snorts an ironic laugh.

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