At 1401 South Central Avenue in Los Angeles, children and adults can come to the African American Firefighter Museum to see artifacts and photos of African American women and men firefighters who despite adversity rose to the ranks of fire chiefs, battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs and captains.
The museum opened in 1997 and is a volunteer and donation driven non-profit. The organization was created to collect, conserve, and share the heritage of African American firefighters through collaboration and education. There are actual uniforms and helmets, poles, dolls, lockers and artifacts from 9/11.
The Sentinel was recently given a tour on a Sunday afternoon. Reggie Lee of Los Angeles, a volunteer docent who gave the tour and history behind African American firefighters, served 34 years as a Los Angeles County firefighter.
Now retired, he stated, “The reason I volunteer is to help others understand what was happening at the time. Station #4 near Belmont High School became the main reason firefighters were sent to Central Station #30, because Whites didn’t want school children to see Blacks in a powerful position. Segregation lasted from 1924 to 1955.
“I volunteer one day a month to give the tour,” said Lee. “African Americans were not allowed to eat with the whites and African Americans had to bring their own dishes.”
As he showed visitors around the first level, Lee pointed out the fire wagons and an actual pole. He said that the fire poles were created by an African American from a New York fire station.
Lee also told the visitors about Arnett Hartsfield, a firefighter who went to law school and graduated in 1955. He attended USC and UCLA and continued at USC Law School, while working as a firefighter.
According to Lee, Hartsfield lead the fight for integration and even sued the city as part of his effort. He retired from firefighting in 1961 to practice law full time. Hartsfield, who died at the age of 95, was one of the co-founders of the museum.
Michelle Banks is another co-founder of the museum along with Brent Burton, Kwame Cooper, Daryl Osby, and David Spence.
Banks was a paramedic for the fire department and retired after 31 years. She served as an infection control coordinator, special assistant to the Fire Chief, and EOC planning section coordinator during her time at the LAFD.
Explaining that the museum is committed to the recruitment and promotion of diversity within the ranks of firefighters, she noted, “The mission of the museum is so history doesn’t repeat itself. Children should know fire service is their friend and there are career opportunities for people of all colors, men and women, now that segregation doesn’t exist, and you can succeed despite adversities.”
Jon Tieuel, who rose to captain and worked for 31 years with the Los Angeles County Fire Department before retiring, volunteers as a docent at the museum. He told the visitors about Stentorians founder James Shern. The Stentorians is a fraternal organization of African American firefighters.
Shern was a Pasadena battalion chief and a fire chief in 1972. He also founded a Firefighter Academy in Compton.
Tieuel said the first African American woman firefighter is believed to be Molly Williams, a slave who eventually became free. A photo was displayed of the first African American woman Los Angeles County firefighter named Tanja Burns. The African American male firefighter in Los Angeleswas Sam Haskins, who served from 1892 until he died in the line of duty in 1895.
Paul Orduna was the first African American to integrate an all-White class of firefighters, said Tieuel. Orduna served as a battalion chief and assistant chief.
The museum features an international firefighter’s room where visitors can see firefighter uniforms from other countries. According to Tieuel, there is an International Black Association of Fire Fighters that started in the 1970s in New York that includes firefighters from the Caribbean, Africa and London. The room includes 9/11 and photos of the Black firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty on that fateful day.
Tieuel added that Dorsey High School has a Fire Magnet program, the only one in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Admission is free to the African American Firefighter Museum. It is open on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., however large group tours can be scheduled during the week by calling (213) 744-1730. Also, the facility is available to rent for special events.
To learn more or to donate, visit aaffmuseum.org.