America’s first firefighting company was founded in Philadelphia by good ol’ Ben Franklin in 1736.
The first “Black” firefighting company in Philadelphia was founded by a free Black man named James Forten 82 years later. Back then all firefighting was done by volunteers, no one was getting paid to extinguish flames. But still the white people protested against this new fire company and the city shut it down in less than a year.
The city started paying professional fire fighters in 1871, but none of those professionals were Black till they hired Isaac Jacobs in 1886. The catch was they didn’t actually let him fight fires, just clean the stables. Mr. Jacobs wasn’t satisfied being a stable boy, he wanted to fight fires, so he left the department after 4 years.
In 1905 Philadelphia hired its second Black fire fighter, Steven Presco. He insisted on fighting fires and was killed doing so 2 years later.
Twelve years later, in 1919 Philadelphia founded its first official Black fire station, Engine 11. Despite being designated as the Black station, Engine 11 was captained by white firefighters and not used to fight fires but was strictly restricted to city maintenance work. They were the city’s original pothole crew.
It was not until 1952 that Philadelphia officially integrated its fire department. That makes a full 134 years between the city’s first black firefighter and actual integration. What a long hard road full of death and humiliation to fight for the privilege of protecting people from fire.
Philly’s story is not unique and similar story lines played out in Virginia, New Orleans, and an especially interesting case in San Antonio.
The city of San Antonio formed a number of professional fire brigades immediately after the close of the civil war. Their cadre of companies included 2 engines run by freed Black men. The catch was the white brigades were paid by the city and the Black brigades were not paid at all. Yet they still functioned. That is until these two companies requested to be paid like the others and in response the city simply banned Black people from being in fire companies.
All of these stories illustrate a couple of different things. First, that there existed qualified and willing Black people since the very beginnings of American firefighting. Second, is that the obstacles to full Black participation in this form of professional, or public life, was not the Black people themselves but a combination of the general American population and the white people who ran city governments.
But despite the obstacles intentionally placed in their way, Black people continuously persisted and fought.
I once lived in South Carolina and was nearly run out of town due to my insistence that the rest of the United States believes USC is in Los Angeles.
I have a working theory that this is the real reason South Carolina led the southern states in secession back in 1861.
Turns out this is not the school’s only point of contention.
There was a day when the “South Carolina College”, founded 1801, was the undisputed intellectual training ground of the American South’s elite sons. Those with means sent their young men to the college to learn to be leaders. It was the feeder system for South Carolina’s government. The state house is only two blocks away.The school put extra emphasis on the power of oratory and debate. The Euphradian Society, founded in 1806, held regular debates on current events and matters of importance, the hottest topic regularly being slavery.
In this upper room of Harper College at USC, students and future leaders honed the argument on why slavery was justified and secession necessary or unavoidable. The debates easily moved from the college over to the capitol.
Under the guise of a harmless tourist I started asking questions of people sitting behind desks. Their uncomfortable looks and lack of answers led me to the basement of the library where lives a very friendly and amiable professor of history. She was happy to talk to me… because she has tenure.
The question that flummoxed the tour guides was, “Are there any buildings left on campus that were known to have originally been used to house slaves?” Turns out the answer is a remarkable “yes”. Remarkable in that it is one of only two remaining such buildings in the country (the other one is at UVA).
What is listed as the carriage house next to the President’s mansion, was originally the quarters of the house slaves. There is no marker, no plaque, no mention anywhere on any official publication of this historical fact other than a byline in a pamphlet.
The good professor went on to tell me of her and her student’s struggles to bring facts like these to light. She believes there are folks on the board who would rather not talk about such unpleasantry. They fail to see any relevance in these details.
She went on to tell more of the school’s history that the board does not like retold. The PR man in me understands why, but what she told me next is so tragically interesting that I cannot see how any student, or institution for that matter, interested in history would skip this tale.
During the civil war the school closed and became a confederate hospital. When the North marched through Columbia it became the home of Union troops that remained through reconstruction.
At the close of the war classes resumed and control was turned back over to the state. When Franklin J. Moses was elected governor (1872), the college integrated. By 1876 the school was predominantly black.
A state school in 1876 predominantly black!? Wow!
In 1876 South Carolina began burning again. Sherman had nothing to do with this fire, it was politics, but the flames were just as real. Republican and Democrats both claimed victory and the incumbent was kept in power by Federal forces. Then the President, Rutherford B. Hayes, ended reconstruction and ordered the troops to stand down. This led to the incumbent not just leaving office but leaving town.
Wade Hampton III, a former confederate general took office and in 1877 the University closed its doors, reopening three years later as an all-white school.
It would not admit another black student till federal law forced the school leaders to do so in 1963.
I suppose we have all moved past those days. It is all just history so why should we bring it up today? Lets all just move on. That is fair. The students giving tours seemed to not know any of this story. They did not tell it and when asked looked confused. Why should a chemistry major know about this stuff anyhow?
My father would have been 20 years old in 1963. How “historical” is that?
We once lived in Greenville, South Carolina. My wife has often said she would love to move back and my swing through the upstate was a bit of a nostalgic one. In retrospect, and upon my return, I found the town a great place to hang your hat.
I knew nothing of Greenville when my then employer sent us there to live, other than that it was the site of a presidential election flap. Then candidate Bush had spoken at Bob Jones University, a Republican powerhouse which happened to have an official school rule banning interracial dating. The school dropped the rule after all the uproar in the election but it would be fair to say we were a bit nervous when we arrived in town.
No one warned us to get out of town as we unloaded the truck and my stomach began to like living there. Greenville boasts a population of approximately 50,000 people and quite possibly 100,000 restaurants. If there is a chain eatery that exists, Greenville has two of them. Every building that ever gets put up for sale, or condemned, is quickly turned into a Barbeque joint. I discovered two of my most favorite ingestible substances in Greenville; Mutt’s sweet potato crumble (mentioned in a previous post) and Blenheim extra hot ginger ale (which will have it’s own post to come). I began to like this town.
Then there is main street.
Many small towns, or locales that are past their hey-day, attempt to create a revitalized downtown. They give it their best to create an area that will attract shoppers and diners on a weekend or evening. Few succeed, even fewer hit a home run like Greenville.
Main street is lined with trees and parking spaces. Even better, its lined with eclectic stores and shops. O.P. Taylor’s toy store with its toy soldiers standing guard at the door, sports a collection of dolls, planes, and unique gifts that you would be hard pressed to find in Toys R’ Us. The Mast General Store will help you find your obligatory palmetto tree logo’d gear, housewares, or vintage candies and soda. I suggest a cold bottle of Cheerwine, cherry soda. The list of stores, eateries, and galleries goes on, but is also supported by outdoor concerts every week in the summer, a street lighting parade every December, and little touches like life-size statues of mice placed randomly about town. It was nearly charming enough to make one swoon. But there is yin to this yang.
There was some press while we lived there about the county being one of, if not the only, locale that did not recognize Martin Luther King day. This was not a new controversy to me, I had lived other places arguing the same issue, and I thought little of it. That is till I went to the DMV to renew my driver’s license only to find it closed for Confederate Memorial Day. Either one in a vacuum could be explained away, but together they cast a shadow. With this in mind I began to notice other things as well.
The historical markers about town did not just pay homage to, but praised the ideals of the old south. Rebel flags flew on all sorts of structures and cars had stickers boasting “heritage, not hate.” There was no room for doubt where this city lie in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line and which side of the civil war still had the town’s support. One should be proud of one’s history and heritage right?
One Easter season Al Allen, a man from a previous generation, took pity on a young couple with no family in town, and invited us over for an Easter dinner. As we made our way down his stairs to where a larger than normal table was set up to accommodate us, we stepped into what could have been a Greenville County black history museum.
Every inch of wall space in the finished basement was covered with photographs, certificates, and various nostalgic paraphernalia. There was a young Al with a football team, with some man in a suit, with a group of men in suits, pictures of buildings I had never seen, and some pictures of buildings I had seen. The images were all in black and white, but the people were all black. He told me tales of when he met with so and so, or worked on a commission with you know who, none of who’s names I knew then or can remember now; except Sterling field.
I played rugby on Sterling Field three times a week. It was in the less attractive part of town, we had to share the field with local little league football teams, but it was the cheapest field around for a low budget sports club. “Used to be a great field,” Mr. Allen told me matter of factly. “Yeah? What happened to it?” I asked, not really caring as I was more interested in the images on the wall than his list of unrecognized names. His answer to my half hearted question got my full attention.
He told me how Sterling High school used to have the best football team around. It was the county’s black school and the pride of all who went there. The kids got a top notch education, the community loved the place, and to top it all off, they won football games. Then came integration.
Integration didn’t happen all at once. Like most things, first rumors started, then meetings were held, and finally maybe a couple years later, something would happen. It was the late 60’s and the writing was on the wall, the whole state knew it was coming. Word came that Sterling would not be closed, sending their students off to other schools, but rather white kids were to be sent there. This was a top performing school both in academics and on the field; it was going to be a great example and the Sterling community was guardedly excited. Then, the year before it was to integrate…
It burned to the ground.
It caught fire the night of prom and burned down to stubble. The school was never rebuilt, and in 1970 all the kids were bussed off to other schools.
As he told the story there was no anger or resentment in his voice. He was just an older guy telling a “back in the day” story. He moved right from that story to showing me his collection of R&B records. The rest of the night consisted of great food, his wife chiding him for trying to smoke in doors when a baby was in the house, and him later giving that baby a stuffed rabbit the size of a live horse. I’ve never been the best at keeping in touch and I have no idea how Al Allen is today. I wonder how he is, but I never do anything.
Travellers and visitors to Greenville would never know stories like this, and that is just fine. Everywhere has its ghosts; they need not be put on constant display. So if you ever find yourself half way between Atlanta and Charlotte, enjoy it. Visit the Reedy River with its stunning bridge, get some jewelry at the Beaded Frog, and as you look at the confederate flags. know that Sterling field used to be nice.