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Abandoned Baltimore fire station to get new life as museum honoring Black firefighters

This former Baltimore City fire station, at 1220 E. Oliver St., is the proposed site of a museum dedicated to the service of firefighters of color. Sept. 15, 2020
This former Baltimore City fire station, at 1220 E. Oliver St., is the proposed site of a museum dedicated to the service of firefighters of color. Sept. 15, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

A nonprofit organization established to recognize the contributions of firefighters of color will restore an abandoned firehouse in Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood into what they hope will become a major East Coast museum and tourist attraction that celebrates their mission.

The African American Fire Fighters Historical Society, founded by a former Baltimore firefighter in 2009, seeks to promote the voices and stories of the Black men and women who have served in a predominantly white field as well as provide mentorship to the next generation.

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As of 2018, Black people in the United States make up about 8% of those who serve as career firefighters, and women in general account for less than 5% of the membership, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor. The department does not break down how many career firefighters are Black women.

The creation of the museum comes as activists, advocates and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement call for greater recognition of the contributions people of color have made in American history and culture. But this effort has been in the works for years, said George Collins, president and founder of the historical society.

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“Since 2009, we’ve doing annual events about African Americans' contributions to the fire service, so we’ve known that the natural progression of things would be a museum,” said Collins, who served with the Baltimore City Fire Department from 1994 to 2017. "Families whose relatives we’d spotlight would say, ‘We gotta get more information!' "

A similar museum exists in Los Angeles, but Collins said an East Coast museum positioned in Baltimore — strategically placed about a half-mile away from the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum and accessible by several public transit options — would attract visitors from all over the country.

“We realize a museum is needed, and Baltimore is centrally located, it has large tourism industry and we hope to, with our folks, make it an asset to the Baltimore tourism community and cultural community,” Collins said.

He added that he hopes the museum will expose more people of color to the fire service, which may not attract diverse candidates given how many stations operate on volunteer labor. Baltimore’s fire companies did not hire any people of color until the 1950s, making diversity a relatively recent development in its legacy.

The historical society will buy the property from the city for $50,000 in a transaction that is expected to be approved at Wednesday’s Board of Estimates meeting. Collins said a mix of grant funding, donations and tax credits meant for historic properties would likely fund the project, which he estimates will cost several million dollars.

Alice Kennedy, acting commissioner of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development, said the agency has been collaborating with the historical society for several years in its pursuit of taking over the old Oliver firehouse.

“There is a rich history concerning the contributions of Black firefighters in Baltimore and that history should be collected and preserved,” Kennedy said.

Collins and his team have already identified an architect and a developer for the project, he said, and hope to have it completed by 2023.

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