Established in 1872, members of Chicago's first Black fire crew strived to prove themselves
Engine 21's Stephen Paine invented sliding poles, and a second Black company was established in 1943
CHICAGO — The year after the Great Chicago Fire, city officials kept their fingers crossed and hired six Black firefighters.
The Tribune reported on Dec. 6, 1872, that a Black fire company would be stationed on the foot of May Street, and cautioned those who might decide to protest: “Any infringement on the rights of the members by the people residing in the vicinity will be punished by the removal of the engine.”
That was a credible threat in a city where 300 had been killed and 100,000 made homeless by the enormous fire of 1871, for which the city’s Fire Department was woefully unprepared. New pumpers were acquired, including one to be staffed by the city’s first Black firemen.
Even if city officials hadn’t foreseen that a small measure of integration would be anathema to white Chicagoans, they would have realized that the day after Engine 21 with its Black crew was assigned to May Street, near the site of the previous year’s fire.
Two crew members ordered drinks at Chaplin and Gore’s saloon on Monroe Street, as the Tribune reported. They were told Black people weren’t served at the bar. “One of them appeared to take the refusal in good part, but the other fellow declared it was a direct insult to the whole Fire Department, of which he was proud to be a member.”
Mr. Gore won the physical confrontation that followed but said he would complain to the fire marshal about his missing gold watch.
Engine 21′s firefighters were not about to acquiesce to the indignity they’d experienced in Southern childhoods.
Born a slave in Kentucky, Stephen Paine served in the Union Army, then came to Chicago where he worked as a coachman. Being a fireman gave him a social standing equal to white people. Others on Engine 21′s crew had taken a similarly big step up. When challenged, they were more likely to fight back with a demonstration of their prowess than their fists.
In 1885, Engine 21 was called to the scene of a lumber fire that threatened the South Side and the adjoining town of Lake.
The crowd of spectators made fun of the men as they dragged their hose in, according to a Tribune report. “But the levity was soon succeeded by admiration. ... They went up to within 10 feet of the burning lumber pile so full of danger to the city and Lake, and soon made an impression on the flames. The pipe got away from three of them once, but the fourth held on though he was knocked down and thrown around and knocked around on the ground.”
Still, why did city officials risk confrontations between Black firemen and racist whites, given all else they had to do to get Chicago up and running in 1872?
The credit is due to Mayor Joseph Medill, says Dekalb Walcott Jr., author of “Black Heroes of Fire,” an account of Engine 21.
Walcott, a retired battalion chief, notes that Medill was committed to the cause of Black people’s freedom.
As editor of the Chicago Tribune he’d championed Abraham Lincoln for president and hectored him to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Elected mayor after the Great Chicago Fire, Medill rejected his own Republican Party’s courting of voters grown weary of the race issue.
Indeed, Engine 21 would experience mixed fortunes as the nation swung to the right in the 1870s. Its initial captain was white, and in 1889, the city turned down a petition for Engine 21 to get its first Black captain.
That was hardly surprising. From the beginning, its Black crew was badmouthed.
In 1874, F.A. Bragg, a real estate dealer and former volunteer firefighter, told insurance adjusters evaluating Chicago’s Fire Department that Engine Co. 21 was political payback to the Black community.
He thought the men “were good drivers and horsemen, generally, but not good firemen,” the Tribune reported. “There was no lack of good and experienced firemen in the city and the existence of this company kept just so many efficient men out of the force,” Bragg insisted.
In response to that put-down, Black firemen strove to prove themselves as good, if not better than, white firemen.
In the 1870s, pumpers were drawn by horses stabled on a fire station’s lower floor. The firemen lived on the upper floor and were graded on how fast they could get downstairs and the engine out the door. Seconds matter to someone trapped in a building on fire.
Not only did Engine 21 consistently get excellent reviews, but it added a tool to a fireman’s kit that quickened the response time of all companies. A Tribune reporter was shown the prototype by Paine, the former slave, on a visit to Engine 21′s quarters in 1888.
“Steve brought it out,” the reporter noted. “It was polished a dark brown and was smooth as ebony and was handled by Steve something as an old battle-flag is handled by a soldier.”
It was a pole used to hoist hay to the third floor, where feed for the horses was stored. One day an alarm was sounded, and George Reed slid down the pole and was waiting for the other firemen, who took the stairs.
That prompted David Kenyon, the company’s white commander, to ask his superiors if a circular hole could be cut in the second floor and the pole installed permanently. Walcott notes that permission was granted on condition that if the experiment failed, he would pay for repairing the floor.
It worked, and the Fire Department’s annual report for 1878 noted that “sliding poles” were being installed in firehouses across the city, Walcott reports. The later ones were made of brass, as sliding down a wooden one meant a fireman sometimes took a sliver with him.
For Kenyon, the invention kick-started his rise through the department’s ranks. As deputy fire marshal, he was thrown from his buggy, run over by an engine, and died of his injuries in 1887.
Though the sliding pole was adopted worldwide, it didn’t end the harassment of Engine 21′s crew or quicken the department’s integration. To the contrary, when a Black firefighter was assigned to Truck 17, the white firefighters burned a Black man in effigy, the Tribune reported in 1907, writing that the white members were so against the idea of a Black colleague that “the firemen said they wouldn’t sleep in the same dormitory with him.”
The first Back captain was appointed in 1923, and a second Black company was established in 1943. With each small breakthrough, more Black children experienced a thrill a Tribune reporter witnessed when Engine 21 went roaring out of its quarters in 1888.
“And there’s a rout of Black urchins, mad with delight, tearing down Taylor Street after Engine and hose-cart No. 21,” he reported.
Little by little, the Black community’s demand for an equal shot at Fire Department positions grew more insistent. In 2011, a judge ordered the city to hire 111 Black firefighters as compensation for its discriminatory practices. Female applicants won a similar lawsuit.
And so it was that in 2021, a mere 143 years after a Black fireman slid down the first fire pole, Annette Nance-Holt, a Black woman, was appointed commissioner of the Chicago Fire Department.
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