Firefighters are required to put their lives on the line on a daily basis. Fires that take place in hotels and motels cause approximately 15 deaths and 150 injuries every year, and we rely on firefighters to keep us safe when the unthinkable occurs. While these brave men and women are typically considered to be heroes, African-American firefighters have historically been regarded as less-deserving of respect among their peers. It’s only in recent years that black firefighters have received the accolades they truly deserve.
Los Angeles, in particular, has a well-documented history of mistreating black firefighters. In the 1950s, Earnest Roberts endured incessant bullying and humiliation from other firefighters at Station No. 10. They even went so far as to smear human feces on his pillow. Roberts suffered a nervous breakdown as a result. However, he persevered and had a 34-year career at the Los Angeles Fire Department.
Roberts’ case was hardly an isolated incident. Black firefighters throughout LA were subjected to intimidation and poor treatment in protest of racial integration. Still, these brave men and women pressed on and paved the way for others.
Their stories are highlighted at the African-American Firefighters Museum in Los Angeles. The museum traces the history of black firefighters in LA from the late 1800s to present day. Throughout the decades, there’s a common thread: sheer tenacity.
In the 1960s, black firefighters were so underrepresented that the city required that for all departments making new entry-level hires, 50% of them needed to be individuals of color. But the decree backfired, as departments found loopholes to disqualify black applicants for other reasons. Sometimes, they’d simply “misplace” their application paperwork.
Black female firefighters had an even harder time getting hired. The first documented African-American firefighter was named Molly Williams. In 1818, she was a slave who accompanied her master, a volunteer firefighter, when he was on duty. But it would take more than 150 years for a black female firefighter to be officially hired in Los Angeles. In 1984, d’Lisa Daives was assigned to station No. 34, representing a long-overdue development.
And in Delaware, it wasn’t until 1993 that the Wilmington Fire Department appointed its first black female Chaplain. While Bishop Aretha E. Morton may not have fought fires, she did hold the rank of Deputy Chief, making her the highest-ranking woman in the whole department. A true trailblazer, she was also the first woman to become a pastor at any Baptist church in Delaware in 1983 and the first female to become Delaware State Bishop for the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International. This year, she was chosen as Delaware Tech’s official honoree for Black History Month.
African-American men and women now hold all sorts of positions within fire departments across the U.S., and fortunately, much has changed since the 1800s. Still, our current political climate proves that racial equality is still lacking in many industries. To keep making strides in this area, it’s important to look to our country’s history and learn about these brave individuals who protected us — even when they weren’t well-protected themselves.