Fighting racial barriers with fire

first_imgAnd that racism is what led to Reynaldo Lopez’s picture appearing on the front page of the now-defunct Daily Mirror newspaper. As the lone African-American firefighter at Station46 on Vernon Avenue, Lopez was the sole target of his company’s racism. “Why didn’t you guys tell me you had put fertilizer on the grass?” a firefighter newly assigned to the station once asked in his presence. “I thought it was the n—– I smelled?” The abuse spurred Lopez to write Chief John H. Alderson a four-page complaint, which he also leaked to the Daily Mirror, along with a photo of Lopez in front of a “White Adults” sign his co-workers placed on the kitchen door to keep him out. Local media were soon buzzing about a “Jim Crow” scandal brewing in liberal Los Angeles. “What the fellows wanted me to do was not fight back – to do our job and keep working and not use violence that the chief could use to show we couldn’t do the job,” said Lopez, who is now 80 and living in California’s Sun City. “I was fighting back by just doing the job, following orders, showing up for work every day.” His vigilance paid off. Though an African-American firefighter wouldn’t join the top ranks of the department for 13 more years – or become chief until last year – Lopez helped jump-start a reformation. Today, about 11percent of the department’s 3,600 uniformed firefighters are African-American, said Armando Hogan, president of the Stentorians, the department’s black firefighters association. Amid the upper ranks, the LAFD has 13 African-American chiefs, including Douglas Barry, the interim chief of the entire department. “In my 20 years, there was not one black chief,” said Arnett Hartsfield, a lawyer and fire historian who retired from LAFD in 1961. “There are 60 captains now. Not one of them is confined to a black crew.” Tensions remain Although the situation has improved dramatically, racial tensions remain. Last year, City Controller Laura Chick released a scathing audit that documented low morale among minorities in the department. In November, the city was split along old racial lines when the City Council authorized a $2.7million settlement to a veteran African-American firefighter who was tricked into eating dog food. Those involved have said the action against Tennie Pierce was a prank among brothers, not a malicious act of racism. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa decided the settlement was too large and vetoed it. The council failed to override his veto, moving the case toward a trial set for Sept.24. Racism status quo But 50 years ago, racism wasn’t alleged or ambiguous. It was status quo. “I’m talking about Los Angeles – not Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia,” said Hartsfield, 88, of Inglewood. “This is Los Angeles.” The Los Angeles Fire Department went into service Feb.1, 1886. Six years later, Sam Haskins became its first black employee. Born a slave in Virginia, Haskins was hired as a part-time “fire callman.” But on Nov. 19, 1895, Haskins was standing on the back of the hook-and-ladder truck barreling down First Street toward Main. The road was bumpy, and Haskins lost his balance. “CRUSHED AND BURNED,” the Los Angeles Times reported with a front-page headline the next day. “HORRIBLE DEATH OF FIREMAN SAM HASKINS – The Colored Callman Fell Between the Wheel and Boiler of His Engine and Was Mangled and Roasted.” And just like that, Haskins vanished into unrecorded history. It wasn’t until a sheriff’s crime analyst stumbled across the old news articles five years ago that the department realized it had been honoring the wrong pioneer. The man everyone thought was the department’s first black was George W. Bright, who joined in 1897, two years after Haskins’ death. Bright is remembered because in 1902 he was promoted to lieutenant, presenting the Fire Department with a problem it wasn’t ready to deal with: how to subordinate white firefighters to a ranking black man. The solution was segregation. African-Americans were assigned to Hose Company4 at 137Belmont Ave. Later, stations14 and 30, both of which were on South Central Avenue, were dedicated as black firehouses. Fire Station No. 30 now is the home of the African American Firefighter Museum. Even after the department began integrating in 1955, African-Americans often grew so tired of being overlooked for promotions that many just retired, Hartsfield said. Take for instance William Hall, a captain at Station 30. “He passed the battalion chief test in 1931,” Hartsfield said. “Only to be told, ‘Hall, it’s a shame you’re not a white man.”‘ [email protected] (818) 713-3634 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! The headline could have referred to last year’s problems in the Los Angeles Fire Department: “Racial Ruckus in Fire Dept.” But the year was 1955. Brown v. Board of Education was barely on the books, and fire stations in Los Angeles were being integrated. No longer would African-American firefighters toil on the lower rungs of the department. No longer would they be confined to two stations on South Central Avenue. In reality, though, rank-and-file whites weren’t ready to consider blacks their equals, poignantly demonstrated when some fliers were circulated around the stations comparing black people to apes. last_img read more