"Even if [other firefighters] didn't like you, they'd teach you. Because the life you saved might be theirs." - - Charles T. Miller
No plaque marks the old-fashioned, workaday 36 Engine House on Edmondson Avenue as a place where history was made. But it used to be the city's fire training school and, 50 years ago today, it was where 10 men broke the color line to become Baltimore's first African-American firefighters.
Baltimore was a segregated city back then. No black person had served in the fire department from its founding in 1858 until Oct. 15, 1953, when the 10 men began their training.
It wasn't a sudden burst of civic enlightenment that allowed blacks to become firefighters.
"The Afro American, Urban League and the NAACP had been trying to integrate the department since 1935," says James Crockett, 79, who was among the first blacks to take the fire department test in July 1953. He's now president of the city's Board of Fire Commissioners.
"What happened," says Crockett, who was with the third class to train, "was that the City of Baltimore could not get enough white people to take the examination and pass it. So the International Underwriters Association said that if [the city] didn't get enough [firemen] they would raise the insurance rates."
The Afro and the civil rights groups prevailed on Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. to open the examination to blacks. They recruited candidates through churches and other organizations.
About 150 African-Americans showed up for the test at the Maryland Institute's old technical school at Market Place and Baltimore Street. Forty-one passed, with a black man named Charles L. Scott making the highest score, black or white. He was among those who began training 50 years ago today.
The first black firefighters will be celebrated tonight at a dinner at the Eubie Blake Center, 847 N. Howard St., sponsored by a committee of African-Americans who have served in the fire department.
The other day, seven of the men got together at their engine house academy on Edmondson Avenue and recalled the early days.
Roy Parker, who's 77 now and lives in Columbia, and Charles T. Miller, 78, were in that first class. Only four of the first 10 are left. Lindsay Washington Jr., who lives in Pasadena, couldn't make it this day. And they've lost track of a man named Ernest H. Barnes. Parker served 27 years in the department, Miller, 30 years, every one of them with his trademark pipe clenched between his teeth.
John T. Murray, 79, came into the department with Crockett in the third class from the 1953 test. The department divided the black recruits into about 10 a class. Murray stayed 32 years and became the fourth African-American captain. James L. Edwards, 75, was in the third class, too. He spent almost all of his 39 years as a firefighter with Engine Company 44.
"That's way up in Roland Park," Crockett jibes. "They don't fight fires there."
"We had good fire prevention," Edwards retorts.
Herman Williams, who went on to become the first black chief of the department, was in the third class, too. But he's not here on this day.
Herlin R. Davenport, 75, who served 35 years at houses from South Baltimore to Liberty Heights Avenue, came from the fourth class, and Thomas Carroll, 76, a 30-year veteran, was in the fifth class. Carroll served for 10 years with 10 Truck at Lafayette Avenue and Strickland Street, one of the busiest houses in the city.
They all looked to be in pretty good shape, as if eating smoke for a couple decades was a healthful diet. They laughed and joked and shared memories of hot fires and the cold reception they received at many firehouses.
Miller, with his pipe, was assigned to Engine 8 at Lafayette Avenue and Gilmor Street. "You'll no longer rest the rest of your life," they told him.
"We were considered a hot company," he says "We were averaging 2,000 runs a year. ... You learned your job and you learned it fast.
"Even if [other firefighters] didn't like you, they'd teach you," he says. "Because the life you saved might be theirs."
That's a kind of mantra of his. He uses it a lot.
"Oh, you had a lot of guys down there [who] didn't like you," he says. "You'd come in there. You're black and he's white and all that stuff. He didn't like you."
Murray, a brawny guy who served three years in the Army during World War II, recites a litany of petty humiliations.
"Separate beds, separate washbowls, separate showers, separate toilets," he says. "Eating equipment, plates and everything, different. They didn't want you to use the pots and pans. Bring your own. They didn't want you touch the TV. Didn't want you to read the paper. Didn't want you to drink coffee out of the pot with them."
"You had to make the coffee," Crockett says. "But you couldn't drink it."
Carroll explains: "The last watch at night in the morning made the coffee, but they wouldn't let you drink it."
He snorts an ironic laugh.
"You're on the fire ground and you're cold and you want a cup of coffee. No, you didn't get it. Unless you got it off Box 414."
Crockett says coffee and newspapers came out of the "coonskin," a collection everybody in the house contributed to in order to have things like television, and radios, maybe different kitchen appliances, even dishes. "Coonskin" doesn't seem to have had any racial connotation. Some suggest it came from coonskin hat. The term and practice were in place long before blacks came into the department. But the new black firefighters were banned from the coonskin. And because food at the house came out of the coonskin, they couldn't join in.
"You see," Miller says, "when you first went in the man says, oh, no, no, no. You didn't pay for this so you can't eat it."
Parker, who went to 20 Engine and 18 Truck, with Lindsay Washington, says they were treated pretty well at their house because the captain was fair. Still, he says, "in the toilet, they had two commodes and two wash basins. They assigned us one wash basin and one commode. There was only two of us in there. So the rest ... that worked at that [double] house had that one to work with. We were in luxury.
"You laugh at it now," Miller says. "You didn't laugh at it at the time."
Parker recalls that sometimes he felt like the invisible man: "They would talk and it would be just like we weren't there.
"I had one guy I got the first grunt out of him ... " He pauses. "It took actually about two years before he ever opened his mouth to speak."
Parker's a gregarious kind of guy most of the company responded to, if only with a "Hi."
"I was even detailed to the ambulance [that he drove] and he still didn't talk."
In those days sometimes even fire victims were racist. Herlin Davenport remembers one white homeowner: "They told me don't come in - and the house is burning!"
These men earned grudging respect from white firefighters through performance on the fire ground.
"At some point," Charles Miller says, "they began to get a degree of appreciation if you functioned properly on the fire line. That didn't make some of them love you. But at least you could do the job.
They fought the big fires of their time: Parker, for example, spent a couple of nights off Park Circle at a big fire at the old Carlin's amusement park in 1956.
"I was down at the Tru-Fit fire where we lost Chief O'Brien and six other firemen," Crockett says. That was in 1955 in a clothing store on The Block. It remains one of the most deadly for firefighters in the department's history. "We had to dig them out during the night and the next day. Sept. 11, 2001, reminded me of what we did in the Tru-Fit fire."
And they faced the dangers that confront all firefighters. Murray remembers a ship fire at the foot of Broadway, the hull so hot it melted his gloves at the touch.
"On the floor crawling, couldn't see nothing, well, let's go this way. Go to my right. If I'd gone a foot to my left, there was a [fall of] two or three stories, nothing but burning fire down there. I was lucky the Lord led me that right way."
Life in the firehouses gradually eased for blacks, notably in the middle 1960s during the administration of Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin. But vestiges of the old biases lingered well into the '70s. Powerful emblems of equality came with the appointment of Chief Williams in 1992 and in Crockett's appointment to the fire board.
Of 1,600 men and women in the fire department today, 400 are African-American. The men honored tonight led the way for them like point men in an infantry squad. They fronted discrimination and danger. But recalling the good and bad old days at the academy where they started, they pretty much agree with Herlin Davenport as he sums up his career.
"I loved it," he says.