Baltimore City FD renames fire station in honor of pioneering Black firefighter
The station is named after Hilton L. Roberts Sr., a member of the second class that integrated the city’s firefighter academy and department in 1954
Frederick N. Rasmussen
BALTIMORE — In late September, the Baltimore City Fire Department renamed Engine Company 52 on West Baltimore’s Woodbrook Avenue the Hilton L. Roberts Sr. Fire Station in honor of a pioneering Black firefighter who was a member of the second class that integrated the city’s firefighter academy and the fire department in 1954.
Roberts’ children and other descendants attended the event with Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, city Fire Chief Niles R. Ford, City Council President Nick Mosby, City Council Vice President Sharon Green-Middleton and 7th District Councilman James Torrence.
Engine 52′s renaming to the Hilton L. Roberts Sr. Fire Station marks the fourth city firehouse to honor Black Baltimore firefighters.
Engine Company 13 and Truck Company 16 in the 400 block of McMechen St. was named the Arthur “Smokestack” Hardy Fire Station in 2004. Hardy had not been a member of the 1954 class, but in 1942, he and 14 other Black men formed an auxiliary fire department.
The department allowed the auxiliary firefighters to train and ride with regular city firefighters, and after the department integrated, Hardy chose to stay with the auxiliary.
In 2005, Charles R. Thomas Sr., who also graduated from Baltimore’s fire academy in 1954, attended the ceremony that renamed Engine Company 36 on Edmondson Avenue after him. A year later, Engine Company 29 on Park Heights Avenue was named for Littleton B. Wyatt Sr., a Morgan State College graduate who also was a member of the second fire academy class to graduate African Americans.
Roberts, who was born in Baltimore in 1925, was raised in the city’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, and graduated from Frederick Douglass High School. His father, Martin Roberts, was a longshoreman, and his mother, Sara Brooks Roberts, an accomplished seamstress.
“He was 17 when he enlisted in the Navy in 1942,” said his son, Keith A. Roberts, a retired federal agent and Marine Corps veteran who worked for the Department of Homeland Security. “He served during World War II, and even though the military was segregated, he did very well and rose to become a petty officer. In those days, it was difficult to get that rank, but he was a pioneer in so many ways.”
Roberts was discharged at the war’s end in 1945 and returned to Baltimore.
“My father always wanted to be a firefighter and be in public service, even when he joined the Navy,” his son said.
But the road to becoming a firefighter in Baltimore, whose fire department was segregated, proved a difficult one.
The Urban League, a national civil rights advocacy group, had requested that department “policies be revised and they admit Negroes as firefighters,” reported The Evening Sun in 1949, using a common term for Black Americans at the time. Several more years would pass before the department finally relented.
The Urban League pointed to the fact that “Kansas City, Louisville, Charleston, South Carolina, Nashville, Richmond and Winston-Salem, all have Negro firemen, and so does Washington,” reported The Evening Sun.
In 1953, Black firefighters were approved for training.
The decision to admit Blacks for firefighter training “scrapped a policy that had been in effect for 100 years,” Frank C. Bauer, president of the Baltimore Fire Board, told The Evening Sun. “The change in policy had been urged for several years by a number of groups including the Urban League. They will be integrated with existing companies.”
Roberts, who was in the second class that graduated in 1954, joined the department the same year. His classmate was Herman Williams Jr., who in 1992 became the city’s first Black fire chief, a position he held until retiring in 2001.
But those early days of an integrated fire department were not without struggles and overt racism. Black firefighters were not allowed to use the same toilets as their white counterparts, who would not share their equipment or oftentimes wouldn’t speak to them. They were also denied entry into the union.
But Roberts was unrelenting. He earned an award for heroism in 1959 from Fire Board president James J. Lacy.
“He performed his service to the fire department and the community selflessly, knowing that his work and conduct reflected not only on himself, but also on the African American community,” his son said in remarks at the dedication. “Along with being a skilled firefighter, he also was a model public servant, during a period wrought with danger, hostility and racial turmoil.”
He added: “I need only close my eyes, think of him, I can still smell the smoke from his clothing and skin. Even while looking into his smoke irritated red swollen eyes, one could not help but notice the smile on his face as he’d enter the house registering success from a job well done!”
An on-duty accident that left Roberts with a shattered leg resulted in his retirement in 1974. He was 55 when he died in 1980, and his wife, Mary Cecilia Roberts, died in 2001.
©2021 Baltimore Sun.