Heroic stories of courage, triumph and the long march toward racial justice nurture our collective national identity. Many of these stories have played out right here in L.A.
This week, “The West on Fire” tackles the difficult history of race and firefighting in Los Angeles, a theme that runs deeply through my own life and career. A now-retired firefighter, I joined the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) in 1984 as the third Black woman in history to put on the LAFD uniform and serve in the department. As with any modern story in the ongoing journey to equality, I – and others like me – are indebted to those who came before.
Let’s turn first to the archives. An 1888 census record lists one Sam Haskins, a formally enslaved Virginian, as a fireman for the City of Los Angeles. Sam Haskins was a western pioneer if ever there was one, and he was the first Los Angeles firefighter to die on the job. How I wish that we could know more of his story. The official segregation of Black firefighters in the Los Angeles Fire Department began in 1902, right as Jim Crow separation and discrimination rose to prominence elsewhere in the nation. L.A.’s segregated firehouses persisted through the mid-1950s.
As in other arenas of civil rights activism, our city’s African American firefighters repeatedly raised the “integration question,” pushing back against the blatant segregation and discriminatory practices so much a part of the era. They did so while constantly risking their lives fighting metropolitan fires of all kinds – residential, commercial, even rural. Like firefighters across time and place, these Black men (and they were men until people like me showed up) responded to disasters large and small, rescued people and property in harm’s way and worked every day to protect lives and livelihoods across the Los Angeles landscape.
The lifesaving work of Black Los Angeles firefighters happened against the backdrop of The Great Migration, the movement of African American people from the South out across the East, the rust belt, and into the far West, especially Southern California. Our lives as 20th and 21st century firefighters played out within the context of over two centuries of struggle, from Dred Scott to Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board. To put it another way, we fight fires along several fronts. We feel called to public service and to our work as firefighters in the stations and on the lines. Firefighting is meaningful, fulfilling work, but it must also be understood as part of a larger context and history.
It is a privilege to have served my city and my community. I am proud of the ways in which the Stentorians, an organization of Black firefighters who banded together in 1954, have kept their watchful gaze upon LAFD hiring, procedural and training practices, so as to ensure equity and forward progress.
Just as cyclical fire seasons across the American West insist that we be vigilant, we have learned that watchfulness upon social, institutional and cultural realities is also necessary. As such, we and our many allies remain committed to uncovering the triumphs and contributions of those who ran into the fire and into the civil rights struggle for the greater good. We push back against cultural forgetfulness about the value of inclusivity, remember the pioneers who paved the way for those of us who came after and keep alive the value and meaning of public service. As wildfires increasingly vex the people and landscapes of the American West, we hope that our civil rights work and legacies continue to inspire others on fire lines everywhere.