Black Firefighters’ Long Struggle for Equality in Oakland

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Three original Oakland firefighters sitting with legs crossed. Circa 1920.

They were young, brazen heroes who faced danger and death during their tenure as Oakland’s first Black firefighters. Nearly a century ago on January 1, 1920, the first Black firefighter joined the city’s Fire Department, with two others to follow a short time later.

“These three men worked in the same firehouse on Eighth and Alice streets as their white counterparts, but on separate shifts,” said Marco Frazier, library assistant  and blogger at the African American Museum & Library at Oakland. “It wasn’t until 1925 that the first all-Black firehouse Engine #22 opened in West Oakland at 3230 Magnolia St.”

“After the hiring opened up, 25 other Blacks were brought in, which resulted in the need for additional firehouses to handle the overload. Two other firehouses, Engines #33 and #28 were later opened in the Oakland hills,” added Frazier.

Frazier further noted that “the working conditions for Black firefighters were not comparable with those of their white counterparts. Firefighters, along with the NAACP, challenged the status quo of the Oakland Fire Department (OFD) and sought changes in the working conditions. They began to fight back against racial, discriminatory and segregation practices.”

After the NAACP became involved, the OFD “integrated” on June 1, 1952. However, Samuel Golden, a Black firefighter termed this move as “token integration.” Mainly because in integrated firehouses, Black firefighters were not allowed to use the refrigerator, so their mates had to bring them meals while on shift.  Additionally, the Black firefighters had to bring their own bedding because white firefighters would not let them use theirs.

According to Frazier, because the Black firefighters needed further support to confront discriminatory practices, Oakland labor leaders C.L. Dellums and Tarea Hall Pittman became instrumental in getting Oakland fire and police departments to integrate.  Golden, insisting on more action, pressured the city manager for a change to eliminate discrimination practices. The city manager capitulated and had the department hire light-skinned firefighters to integrate an all-white station.

However, this form of integration still didn’t settle well with Dellums and the NAACP, who, in 1955, approached the Oakland city manager to voice their concerns. As a result, official integration took place on Aug. 5, 1955. After integration, whites and

Blacks worked fires as a team, but the attitudes of the white firefighters remained the same. These attitudes remained until younger, white firefighters replaced older retiring firefighters.

“Moving up the ranks was tough,” said Frazier. “The first Black firefighter promoted in the OFD was Royce Troyce. He was promoted to engineer in the early ’30s at Engine No.22. Pat Taylor was promoted to become the first Black lieutenant at the OFD and became captain in 1949, the highest ranking black in the OFD until 1973 when Sam Golden made battalion chief.

Previously, Golden had been promoted to the rank of engineer in 1958, lieutenant in 1961, captain in 1964 and battalion chief in 1973.  In 1981, he became the first Black fire chief in Oakland.

For more information on early Black firefighters in the Oakland Fire Department, please review the archival interviews of Samuel Golden and Lamont Ewell at the AAMLO or visit the oaklandlibrary.org.

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