By L.A. Watts Times
LOS ANGELES - Angelenos are seeing a historic era unfold before them.
That's because the board of supervisors on Feb. 8 selected Daryl Osby to be the Los Angeles County Fire Department's first Black fire chief.
And then there's Millage Peaks, who was appointed to the Los Angeles Fire Department's top position in 2009 and is reportedly the city's second Black fire chief.
They're among just a portion of African Americans in the county and city fire departments.
As of 2010, there were 221 African Americans, or 7.4 percent, in the county's firefighting force of 2,967 uniform ranks, according to county figures.
Of the civilian and sworn firefighters in the City of L.A., there were 404 Blacks, or nearly 10.5 percent, out of 3,862, as of October 2010. The figures are from the city's fire department.
Having African Americans at the helm of Los Angeles' two major fire department means those agencies have come a long way from the days where Black firefighters were segregated and occupied only two fire stations on Central Avenue.
But the road from only two fire stations to integration to two Black fire chiefs has not been a straight line.
It's been long and winding and, for some, painful.
The Early Days
The Los Angeles Fire Department was established in 1886.
According to the African American Firefighter Museum, Sam Haskins became the first Black firefighter in Los Angeles in 1888. Citing the census, the museum reports that Haskins was listed as an employed fireman for the city.
Blacks were sent to Hose Company No. 2 and 4, according to the museum, and these two were combined in 1912 and moved to Fire Station No. 30 on Central Avenue in 1924.
Segregated for decades, Fire Station No. 30 now has a new, improved function nowadays: It's the African American Firefighter Museum, and it houses the history of Black firefighters in Los Angeles.
A Virtual Shrine
Inside the museum is a virtual shrine to these firefighters: There are hundreds of photos from the 1920s to the present, such as the black-and-white picture of Station No. 30's Black firemen, circa 1925. They're standing in formation with their gear at their new station at 1401 S. Central Ave.
There's an exhibit of women fire chiefs that spotlights Rosemary Roberts Cloud, of East Point, Ga., reportedly the nation's first African-American female fire chief.
There are the L.A. Men of Fire 2008 and 2009 calendars. And there's also an African-American firefighting doll that is dedicated to Black firefighters in general and to those who served at Los Angeles Fire Department station 94 in particular.
The museum is attended to by Brent Burton, the museum's president; Kwame Cooper, the city fire department's battalion chief and museum vice president; and a group of dedicated volunteers headed by Akosua Hobert.
Burton is a 25-year veteran and a captain at the county's fire department.
What he likes most about being a firefighter, he said, are the challenges: from getting into a burning home as quickly as possible to save a life to cutting people out of their vehicles with the jaws of life.
There's another kind of challenge for Burton: getting African Americans "to know about the museum and (to) come and visit and learn about the 100-year history of African-American firefighters in Los Angeles ... to learn about fire preparedness, safety, disaster preparedness, first aid."
He loves speaking to neighborhood groups, homeowners associations and block clubs — and taking young people on tours, as he recently did, acting as a tour guide to the Carson Christian School students.
If one looks up the word "stentorian" in Webster's II dictionary, the definition that person would find is "very loud."
But, since 1954, to firefighters in Los Angeles, the Stentorians have been the firefighters who have raised their voices in the struggles against segregation and racial discrimination.
It is likely that, because of them, Paul Orduna became the first Black firefighter to break up longstanding segregation in the city's fire department in 1957; with his hiring, he helped integrate the department.
A Witness of Discrimination
Ninety-two-year-old Arnett Hartsfield, who worked for the L.A. Fire Department, is a true walking encyclopedia of the history of African-American firefighters in the city.
The nonagenarian has many stories of firefighters who have come and gone — and overcome obstacles.
In a recent interview at the museum, Hartsfield says he gets "too much credit. I appreciate it, but I wanna share it with the men that earned it with me ... There's not a single Black fireman in L.A. city that's still living that came on before me.
"Better than that, there are more than 60 Black firemen who came on after me who are dead already, and I'm still here."
Despite all he's witnessed, Hartsfield decided long ago to "change (his) voice and look at (his) blessings."
When Hartsfield was asked about the most glaring, most painful act of discrimination that he suffered as a firefighter (he retired in 1961), his cheerful laughing stopped and he recalled a litany of events from his generation.
Pointing to a photo of someone named Ernest Roberts, Hartsfield said, "I think he suffered the worst ... Right over here on Hill Street, engine number 10 ... the White firefighters took his pillow and told him to put human filth in it ... and he laid his head in it. He said to me, 'Rookie, they were harassing me so hard I was so anxious to get to bed ...'"
Hartsfield said that with his new outlook, he can still find a silver lining in that dark cloud.
"His widow's still drawing a pension," he said, "and, in addition to that, I went to his son's retirement, after 30 years of service as the ranking inspector ... So though Ernie, like me, never got a promotion in this department, his legacy's still living on."
He continued: "During one fire ... most of the White firefighters referred to me as the 'damn nigger firefighter' ... I've lived long enough to see that same department in 2007 honor me with a lifetime achievement award."
Another incident he recalled was that of a Black female firefighter.
"Her mouthwash was low. She came in the next day (and) it was full," he contended. "She was smart enough to give it a smell test first. It was full of urine. She ended up getting a very handsome settlement."
Hartsfield also recalled a time when there was a brush fire.
"Another (African-American) firefighter and I walked up to the chief, and we heard them talking and someone asked, 'Where's the (African-American) captain?'
"The chief said, 'He's down at the bottom of the hill with his niggers.' And we were shocked, and the other Black firefighter went off on him ... The next day Chief Richardson came to our station and told us we were supersensitive."
When talking to Hartsfield, one's mind could immediately fast forward to a noteworthy race discrimination lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles in recent history.
Racial tensions flared several years ago during news coverage following an incident in which White firefighters put dog food in Tennie Pierce's food.
The African-American firefighter contended that the 2004 incident was because of racial discrimination. Others maintained that the White firefighter's actions — which took place at a station in Westchester — was a prank.
A lawsuit was filed, and the city reportedly settled it for roughly $1.4 million in 2007.
It's been a long road to the top for the two African-American men at the helm of Los Angeles' two major fire departments — and it's possible that both of them could attest to the hurdles they had to jump over to reach the top.
But for the family of firefighters they lead, including the African-American firefighters, the future could burn brighter.