News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by A Martínez
Airs Weekdays 9 to 10 a.m.

LA's first black firefighter was a secret, and other things you can learn at the African American Firefighter Museum




Jayson Johnson, a Los Angeles firefighter, stands in the door of the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, California, where he volunteers once a week. The museum is housed in Fire Station #30, one of two segregated firehouses in Los Angeles between 1924 and 1955.
Jayson Johnson, a Los Angeles firefighter, stands in the door of the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, California, where he volunteers once a week. The museum is housed in Fire Station #30, one of two segregated firehouses in Los Angeles between 1924 and 1955.
ANDREW CULLEN

Listen to story

05:32
Download this story 5.0MB

Station No. 30 on Central Ave. is one of two formerly segregated firehouses in Los Angeles. It closed in 1980. But the building now stands with a different purpose, as the African American Firefighter Museum. It tells the story of segregation and integration in the L.A. Fire Department, and celebrates past and present black leaders of fire departments across the country. 

The museum's mission is to promote diversity and to stand up for inequality against all races and genders. It's run entirely on donations and volunteers.

Antique fire carts and a mannequin descending a fire pole are on display on the first floor of the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, California.
Antique fire carts and a mannequin descending a fire pole are on display on the first floor of the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, California.
ANDREW CULLEN

Inside, fireman’s poles emerge from dark wood-paneled ceilings, complete with a uniformed mannequin in mid-slide. 

The main room used to house horses, and later, fire trucks, that responded to alarms that ran out of neighborhoods across South L.A. It’s a treasure trove of artifacts. Docent Jimmy Smith points out the old horse-drawn hose wagon.

"The horses automatically would get in front of the carts. They would hook ‘em up, then they would be off to fight fires."

Smith’s an expert at telling old stories, especially about African-American pioneers in the department. Like Sam Haskins, a former slave from Virginia who became L.A.’s first black firefighter in the late 1800s. 

Sam Haskins, hired by the L.A. fire department in 1892 and killed while while responding to a fire in 1895, was the city's first known black firefighter. His portrait hangs in the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, California.
Sam Haskins, hired by the L.A. fire department in 1892 and killed while while responding to a fire in 1895, was the city's first known black firefighter. His portrait hangs in the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, California.
ANDREW CULLEN

But as Smith explained, the department kept Haskins’ job under wraps.

"L.A. City Fire Department didn’t really put out word that he was there because they didn’t want other blacks hearing and thinking that they could come and get jobs like that."

That didn’t stop other black firefighters from joining the ranks. 

But in 1924, as segregation swept across the country, they were only able to work in two fire houses. One was Station No. 30, with a team of 26 firefighters. 

African-American firefighters stand outside Station #30 on Central Ave. in South L.A., circa 1925. The station is now the African American Firefighter Museum
African-American firefighters stand outside Station #30 on Central Ave. in South L.A., circa 1925. The station is now the African American Firefighter Museum
Courtesy of the African American Firefighter Museum

And it wasn’t easy to become one.  

You had to pass a civil service exam, then wait for someone at the station to either die or retire, and fill their spot. 

And when you wanted a promotion, "the highest position you could go to in the fire service was that of a captain," L.A. County Fire Captain, Brent Burton said.

Burton is also past president and historian at the African American Firefighter Museum.

Burton: There was a captain that worked here, William Hall. He took the battalion chief’s exam, the next promotion above captain. He took it, passed it. But he got sent a letter, and I wish we had that letter, but this was 1931. It said, ‘It’s a shame you’re not a white man. There is no place, nor plan for a colored battalion chief in this department.’ 

But in 1954, things started changing. The Supreme Court ruled that separate public schools were inherently unequal, and that segregation was unconstitutional.

And at first, according to Brent Burton, that wasn't a problem for the L.A. Fire Department. 

Burton: They put firefighters at a station just southwest of here, number 7, and everybody got along very well. But when word got back to the administration, they pulled guys back. And sent folks to other stations where they felt that it wouldn’t work.

Basically, Burton is said the administration was trying to make things tough for them.

A book with a photo of a
A book with a photo of a "white adults" sign that kept black firefighters from eating meals with their white colleagues in a Los Angeles firehouse after integration, and iconic photographs of civil rights protestors being sprayed with fire hoses are displayed at the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, California.
ANDREW CULLEN

And it worked. Integration looked a lot like segregation with a new set of rules that only applied to black firefighters. 

Burton: Like eating with separate utensils. Eating at separate times....During an inspection, when they lined up, the black firefighters stood four human spaces away from the rest of the crew.  If you put your food in the refrigerator, they would contaminate it.

Arnett Hartsfield Jr., was an L.A. firefighter who fought for equality in the department. 

In a 2009 interview of for the UC Berkeley California Firefighters History Project, Hartsfield said that only one white firefighter spoke to him on the job. That firefighter said...

Hartsfield: '...Hartsfield you’ve got all the advantages. You got the NAACP, you got the Supreme Court.' I said, 'Hold it, Bill...Come down to headquarters. Tell them you’ve just discovered some black blood in your family tree...and you’ll have all my advantages.' And he never bothered me again.

In 1955, Hartsfield worked with 30 colleagues to form a social organization for black firefighters called the Stentorians, which means a loud and powerful voice--a voice they took to the Mayor of L.A. in 1963, says Burton.

Burton: And once they explained to the mayor what was going on, the mayor issued a formal order to the department that you will act like a grown-up department and you will all eat together. So that stopped that.

Paul Orduna, left, the first black firefighter to join the city's department in 1957, after it was integrated, is shown amongst a sea of white faces in a photo of his recruit class displayed at the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, California.
Paul Orduna, left, the first black firefighter to join the city's department in 1957, after it was integrated, is shown amongst a sea of white faces in a photo of his recruit class displayed at the African American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, California.
ANDREW CULLEN

More than 50 years later, diversity is still a work in progress at the LAFD. A statement from the department reads:

"The LAFD continually works to develop a workforce that reflects the diversity of the city we serve. Our current recruitment efforts reflect that mission and effort."

As of February this year, about 12 percent of the city’s fire department is African-American. That’s 374 people, out of more than 3,000.