A Burning PASSION; In 1952, Arthur "Smokestack" Hardy's broke the color barrier for Baltimore firefighters. Now a folk museum here keeps his memory and legacy alive.


Arthur "Smokestack" Hardy began a lifetime of chasing fire engines when he was a boy and the grand old horse-drawn pumpers belched fire and smoke from their nickel-plated boilers.

"Smokestack got his name from this kind of pumper here," says Guy Cephas, creator and curator of the Arthur "Smokestack" Hardy Fire Museum. He's speaking in his tour voice and pointing at a photograph of the old firefighting equipment.

"He ran along the side of this pumper, and the smoke would come out of this stack. He kept the name Smokestack and became a very known person."

So Arthur P. Hardy remained Smokestack until the end of his life, at 94, in December 1995. He had hardly lost a step in running after fires for 90 years and in fighting them for about 50.

In Hardy's honor, and from artifacts Hardy collected, clippings he saved and photographs he took, Cephas has created a kind of folk museum in the front room of his home at 203 N. Carey St.

He's truly the keeper of the Smokestack Hardy flame.

And Hardy's fiery treasures amount to perhaps the finest archive of African-American firefighting memorabilia, not only in Baltimore, but in the whole country.

"Smokestack was the foremost historian of black firefighters in the nation," says Richard Sewell, a stalwart of the Friendship Fire Association, a coven of fire buffs in Washington, D.C. "I don't think there's another collection like this anywhere."

When the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters was formed, Sewell says, Hardy was an important source of information.

"Smokestack was an honorary fire chief in many cities," he says. "He was keeper of a massive amount of material. He had so many artifacts it was unbelievable.

"Whenever he came to Washington they laid out the red carpet. The chief would meet him and take him on a tour of fire training facilities. He was treated as a well-respected authority on the history of fire."

Smokestack Hardy was a short, tough and wiry, square-faced man with an extravagantly wide, straight, pencil-thin Don Ameche mustache. He was among the first African-American men to serve with the Baltimore Fire Department.

"We were the first black firefighters in the city," says Delmar Davis, Hardy's fire-buff companion from boyhood and a lifelong friend. "We went in April 1952."

"They were responsible for integrating the fire department," says Hardy's niece, Phyliss Purnell.

"Yes," says Davis. "We were auxiliary firefighters."

"They did everything the other firemen did," says Cephas.

Except they never got paid.

"When I came in the Fire Department in February 1954, Smokestack was riding 13 Engine," says Herman Williams Jr., now the Baltimore fire chief. He's visiting the museum for the first time. Williams trained with the second group of African-American firefighters who became "regular" paid professional firefighters in Baltimore. The first came on in October 1953.

Smokestack's old 13 Engine House, at Fremont Avenue and Myrtle Street, was always one of the busiest in the city.

"We had never seen any black firefighters," Williams says. "To see them turn out on the back of that wagon, it was really something. It was an encouragement to us back in those days. Because they were older than us. If these guys can do this, we know we can."

Hardy had already trained as an auxiliary firefighter with the Baltimore Committee for Civil Defense as far back as September 1942, during World War II.

But black auxiliaries were not allowed to ride trucks until 1952, when Hardy and Davis trained with the fire department.

"We couldn't believe that they were there, and had been there for so many years," Williams says.

African-American firefighters, in general, were segregated even when Williams joined the department. He was assigned to Engine Company 35, in Brooklyn.

"Black firefighters had separate sleeping facilities," the chief recalls, "separate eating facilities, bathroom facilities."

But there weren't enough African-Americans even to have separate black firehouses.

Segregation lasted until well into the 1960s. Williams, in fact, was the first African-American firefighter to be promoted in the Baltimore department. He became a pump operator in 1959.

But Hardy managed to be at most of the headline fires of 20th century Baltimore, starting with the Great Fire of 1904, which he claimed to remember well.

"Certainly he did," Davis recalls. "Oh yes, oh yes, he could talk to you about the Baltimore Fire."

"He said he remembered his grandmother taking him to it," says Purnell, his niece.

Hardy's family lived in a little house on George Street, about where the Murphy Homes were recently demolished. "He said from that time on he was hooked on fires," Purnell says. "That fascinated him. He was 3.

"From the time he could, every time there was a fire, he was there," Purnell says. "When he was 90 years old, one time, my girl friend called me one night and she said, 'Your uncle's apartment house is on fire.' I said, 'He doesn't live in an apartment house.' She said, 'Turn on Channel 11.'

"And there he was, with a dark coat on, his fire hat on, and he turned around and smiled at the camera. I said, 'That's him!'

"And it was 2 o'clock in the morning!"

In his 90s, Hardy lived in a third-floor apartment on McCulloh Street.

"When he got real old and couldn't run up and down," his niece says, "he had a red light that went around, and he would put it in the window and the fire trucks going by would honk at it and that would really make him glad."

For years Hardy recorded virtually every fire alarm struck in Baltimore and which companies went out on the call. Cephas keeps the record going even now. The insistent chatter of a fire scanner provides a natural authenticity to the museum.

"Delmar and Arthur went to every fire they could," Purnell says. "Delmar took him. He'd come around all hours of the night."

So you ask Davis: Do you still go to fires?

"Yes, I do."

But he's only 78.

"Every multiple alarm, we responded," he says. He picked up Hardy, who never drove.

Hardy and Davis worked the Tru-Fit fire on the night in 1955 when six firefighters, including Battalion Chief Francis P. O'Brien, died, the heaviest toll of any fire this century. The nine-alarm fire was in a clothing store in the 500 block of East Baltimore Street. They went out on the second alarm.

"We, Art and I, were on the roof with Chief O'Brien," Davis says. "Chief O'Brien sent us down off the roof to get the inch-and-a-half line. When we walked through the small alley we heard Whoomp! And Hardy and I turned around and the building was gone. And we spent the rest of the night digging out, digging out ."

Virtually every firefighter in Baltimore responded to the Tru-Fit fire.

"I came that morning," Williams says. "I was stationed at 57 Engine then, in Curtis Bay."

The Tru-Fit fire is missing from the wall of photographs that Hardy took over the years. But real fire buffs will remember the Pep Boys fire in South Baltimore from August 1943; the Beethoven apartment house fire in Bolton Hill where a policeman died; the arson fire set by a disgruntled student at the defunct Bay College, the old City College building now an apartment house at Howard and Centre streets; the Girard's Disco fire in Mount Vernon on the day after Christmas in 1985. Hardy was an indefatigable photographer.

"I've got tons more," Purnell says. "I have suitcases full. I have boxes of undeveloped film from him. You wouldn't believe it. I have fire hoses. It's overwhelming.

"I have scrapbooks, and hats from all over the world, and I have a lot of fire toys," she says. "From him! It's unbelievable what he collected.

"And to top it off he was a musician. He played the piano and organ. He played the mandolin. I have his mandolin. He got the mandolin when he was a teen-ager. He got it secondhand and his grandmother gave him the money to get it. And I have it up the house. It's still strung.

"He used to play in church."

He went to church as dependably as he went to fires. He was a member of the Berea Temple of the Seventh Day Adventist Church for 70 years. But he didn't wear his customary firefighter's blue shirt and cap to church. He put on a suit and tie.

Still, Delmar Davis offered his old friend the finest, fitting, yet most simple, accolade: "He was an active firefighter. He was just an active firefighter."

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