The First Black Firefighters
Written by Joe Lowry with research and editorial assistance by Trish Gully.
It was the first day of training for the 12 newly hired Black Firefighters on July the 11th, 1955. These men had to endure more than what any regular firefighter was asked to do. They were basically treated as a total separate fire department. The officers assigned to train them told them they really did not care if they passed or not and that they did not want them there. They passed the training which took about 3 months. After their assignment to Fire Station 8 located at 832 Mississippi Blvd., Captains M.D. Baxter, Charles Gunti, and Lieutenants Duane Snyder and W. S. Bomar were assigned to serve as station officers. This was considered a punishment assignment by the other members of the department.
They lived in the Officers’ Quarters away from the men. There was a station TV set, but it was in the Officers room. Local funeral director/and Ambulance Service owner Samuel Qualls Jr, and two other Black Businessmen provided the men with a TV set. Sam Qualls served as the mentor for these young men, something they were not afforded by the department. Usually when a young man comes out of Drill School and is assigned to a company, his officer makes sure he is safe and able to manage the stresses of being a new man. This did not happen to these men. The department basically treated these men as a separate department within a department.
When these guys drove out of rank, they were not compensated for it like the whites were. The compensation policy was different for the black firefighter. When they responded to a white person’s home they had to enter through the back door. They were not afforded the opportunity to experience the work on the other apparatus that other firefighters were offered. They were dispatched to all 2nd alarm or greater fires. They were given the worst jobs. Of this group of men, some of the best and most respected firefighters came from within. Some became Chief Officers in all bureaus and departments. The white firefighters and the department did not want them. They had to prove their worth every day. These were men of character and they had to prove themselves against all kinds of situations. They are; John Cooper, Murry Pegues, Robert J Crawford, Else Parsons, Lawrence Yates, Earl Westley Stotts, Norvel Wallace, Leroy Johnson Jr., William C. Carter, Richard H. Burns, and Floyd Newsum.
This historian knows for a fact the Captain Arthur Locastro and Lt. Kenny Holmes treated the men with respect and they got respect in return.
When Lt. Kenny Holmes was sent to Fire Station 8, he took the men in the bed hall and told them this “we are all the same color here, and if you treat me with respect, I will treat you with respect.” They did exactly that. Lt. Holmes was assigned to Captain Baxter, who was never at work. Lt. Holmes did a fine job.
I became close personal friends with Norvell Wallace, so much so that I gave the eulogy at his funeral. He told me on several occasions white firefighters would go out and scrounge up old shoes and tie them together and then ride by station 8 and throw the shoes into the station and say, “here shine these shoes”. These men became some of the toughest firefighters on the entire job. They took more heat and worked harder than most white companies on the department.
Without the vision as in many integrated and full African American fire companies in other cities of the day, including Nashville, Memphis lagged behind the times. Many of these men, some who had fought and served our country, paved the way for the future, as the time had come to give a fair chance to all in the fire services.
2 thoughts on “The First Black Firefighters”
I serve 20 yrs as Firefighter, we lost one member of our family Pvt. Joseph A. Boswell. Also my brother Terry Boswell was a career Firefighter. Thing were still rough when I Graduated. They did not want us there!
Thank you very much Vernon for your service.
Why did those white firemen not want black firefighters to work with them?
I understand they were racists right?
But what were they afraid of?