Photo: Arlington County Public Library, Higgins collection
The first of Arlington County's black firefighters - members of the Hall's Hill Volunteer Fire Department and the paid men at Station No. 8 - grappled with taunts and inequities in the days of Jim Crow, according to Arlington Public Library records.
In a 2008 oral history compiled by the library, retired fire lieutenant Hartman Reed said: ``We were a segregated station and for some reason, the feeling during those years was that they wouldn’t involve us in things that were outside of our jurisdiction too often.”
On runs outside Hall's Hill, the firefighters would be subjected to insults and slurs from the people they were trying to aid, including a man whose home was on fire and a drunkard with a broken ankle, Reed said in the library's oral history. ``We were trying to help him but it didn’t make no difference,” he said.
In a bizarre incident, George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, visited the firehouse to discuss his plan to pay African-Americans to move Africa, Reed said. (Rockwell's party was headquartered in Arlington.)
When Station No. 8 was racially integrated in the early 1960s, Alfred Clark, the county's first African American fire captain, faced a mutiny by some of the white firefighters who said they ``would not serve under a ‘Ni…’ and even wrote it on the chalkboard,'' according to Clark's daughter, Kitty.
``The battalion chief came up, ordered it removed, and told the white firefighters they will serve and respect Captain Clark,'' Kitty said.
The library said the original paid firefighters assigned to Station No. 8, in order of hire, were Alfred Clark, Julian Syphax, George McNeal, Archie Syphax, Hartman Reed, James K. Jones, Carroll Deskins, Henry Vincent, Carl Cooper, Ervin Richardson, Jimmy Terry, Wilton Hendricks, Bill Warrington and Bobby Hill.
Another brigade of black firefighters served Queen City, a long-gone black community in East Arlington. ``We needed one, so (the residents) had dinners and parties and whatnot and they bought an engine and built the fire station," Eddie Corbin, who lived Queen City, recalled at a library event in 2011. There's little doubt Queen City's firefighters dealt with the same obstacles as the men of Hall's Hill.
Photo: Private Collection