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Louis R. Harper Jr., first African-American Baltimore Fire Department captain, dies at 89

Louis R. Harper Jr., the Baltimore City Fire Department’s first African-American captain, whose landmark 1971 lawsuit forced the city to end discriminatory practices in the hiring and promotion of firefighters and police, died Dec. 8 of symptoms related to dementia in hospice at FutureCare Cherrywood in Reisterstown.

The West Baltimore native was 89.

Captain Harper, a founding member of the Vulcan Blazers Inc., a fraternal organization for black firefighters and paramedics, retired in 1981 after a “lengthy and fruitful tenure” of 25 years, the Fire Department said in a memorial post on social media.

“He was instrumental in paving the way for minorities both in the Fire and Police Departments and helped change the hiring and promotional process for African Americans in Baltimore City,” the Fire Department statement said.

Captain Harper was humble about his accomplishments, however, and was just as well known among his family and his longtime Randallstown friends and neighbors for his weekly Friday fish fry, sense of humor and bowlegged dancing, said Annie Delores “Lois” Harper, his wife of 31 years.

“He was a fun man to be around,” said Mrs. Harper, 68. “He was a caring person, about all the lives he touched and all the people who touched his life as well.”

Louis Robert Harper Jr. was born in Baltimore on July 14, 1929, to Louis R. Harper Sr., who worked for Revere Copper and Brass, and Dora White.

He grew up on Stricker Street in West Baltimore, joined the Boy Scouts and attended Frederick Douglass High School, graduating in 1947.

After graduation, Captain Harper enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a staff sergeant in the Korean War. After the war’s end in 1953, he worked as a clerk at Fort Meade until becoming a firefighter three years later.

Captain Harper was hired at the Baltimore City Fire Department in March 1956 and climbed the ranks from firefighter to pump operator (engine driver) to lieutenant — and, on July 29, 1970 — to the first African-American captain in the department’s history. Seven months later, he was appointed to the role of acting battalion chief and was featured in The Afro-American newspaper as the highest-ranking African-American.

He filed a class-action lawsuit against the city in 1971, claiming that the Fire Department showed "little concern" for hiring and promoting black firefighters, and won in 1973 — forcing the fire and police departments, among other measures, to eliminate spelling and penmanship exams and give preference to applicants who were city residents over those who did not live in the city.

“The May 2, 1973 victory was better than any title or promotion,” a family biography said. “It cemented his legacy in the fire service profession nationwide.”

His legacy reverberates in the Fire Department today, said Lt. Albert F. Jarrett, president of the Vulcan Blazers and a member of Squad 40 at Captain Harper’s old firehouse, on Liberty Heights Avenue and Garrison Boulevard in Northwest Baltimore.

“He just showed minorities how to stand up to discrimination and racism in organizations like the Fire Department and others, including the Police Department and the private sector,” Lt. Jarrett said. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be an officer to this day, along with some of my colleagues.”

His retirement from the Fire Department was followed by a move to the home in Randallstown and careers as a taxi driver for Diamond Cab Co. and as a courier for Residential Title Co., Mrs. Harper said.

“He was used to driving, with the firetrucks,” she said. “He pretty much knew the city and the surrounding counties.”

Captain Harper had five children from two previous marriages; Mrs. Harper had four of her own, and the couple enjoyed taking their respective children on fishing trips and vacations to Virginia Beach, Va., Mrs. Harper said. He also enjoyed bowling, working around the house and building computers, she said.

He lived by the old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” said his niece, Rose M. Johnson of Randallstown.

His daughter Gwendolyn Graves, 65, of Windsor Mill, said he was a father figure to more than his children and stepchildren.

“I had to share him with other people,” she said, “but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the impact he’s had on other people’s lives as I’ve shared him with them.”

A viewing will be held on December 27, 2018 4-8 p.m. Thursday at Vaughn Greene Funeral Services, 8728 Liberty Road in Randallstown. A wake and funeral are scheduled for Friday at 10:30 a.m. at New Antioch Baptist Church, 5609 Old Court Road.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Captain Harper is survived by a son, Robert Harper, 61, of Summerville, S.C.; his daughter Sheila Harper of Bowie; his son Eric Harper of Bowie; and four stepchildren, Alton Bryant, 52, of Aldie, Va., Cynthia Hummons, 51, of Baltimore; Benny Bryant, 44, of St. Charles, Mo.; and Tiffany Wilson, 39, of Owings Mills. He was predeceased in 1992 by another daughter, Susan Harper, and is survived by dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.

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