RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — More than 71 years after the first Black career firefighters were hired by the Richmond Fire Department (RFD), local leaders, descendants and community members gathered Sunday to honor their legacy.
On July 1, 1950, RFD, then named the Richmond Fire Bureau, hired 10 Black firefighters, selected out of 500 applicants. They were Charles L. Belle, William E. Brown, Douglas P. Evans, Harvey S. Hicks II, Warren W. Kersey, Bernard C. Lewis, Farrar Lucas, Arthur L. Page, Arthur C. St. John and Linwood M. Wooldridge.
Page’s daughter, Patricia Page Whitfield, spoke Sunday, remembering the challenges that her father faced in securing employment.
“He earned positions, but I remember him getting turned away, not because of the content of his character, but because of the color of his skin,” Whitfield said. “I would see him hurt, a couple times, but the first time I had actually seen him cry.”
When they were hired in 1950, all 10 Black firefighters were assigned to Engine Company #9 at 5th and Duval Streets in Richmond. The company was integrated on July 6, 1963, just two days after current RFD Chief Melvin Carter was born.
“The Richmond Fire Department’s been around since 1858. They hired their first African American in 1950,” Carter said. “The things that those men had to endure, had to put up with, had to overcome, had to go around, were just simply amazing.”
Carter said that the fruits of the labor of those first 10 men are still flourishing and will not be forgotten.
“It’s not easy being a firefighter,” he said. “Their perseverance and return on investment led to myself being the 21st fire chief of the City of Richmond. I was born on July 4 in 1963. July 4 — just think of the significance of that. Two days later, the Richmond Fire Department integrated and nearly 50-plus years later, I would become the city’s first homegrown fire chief.”
St. John was called to return to the military later in 1950, prompting the hiring of Frederick J. Robinson. When Lucas resigned in 1951, Oscar L. Blake was hired.
On June 14, 1963, two members of Engine Company #9 lost their lives, Hicks and Evans, during a rescue attempt.
“I applaud and appreciate all the men of Engine #9,” Whitfield said. “They were like brothers. Talk about fraternity — they were a fraternity. They stuck together, they played together, they prayed together.”
Engine Company #9 was demolished in 1968. On July 1, 2000, the site of the former station became a historical landmark.
“The 10 men on the marker behind us were living examples of what commitment to a vision and a belief in their community so that others like myself and other Richmond firefighters who have long since retired could be inspired to one day pick up that mantle and show others that this, too, is possible,” Carter said. “They called it out. They didn’t shy away from their calling.”
Coming up in August, a celebration is planned for the 75th anniversary of the first Black police officers and the 71st anniversary of the first Black firefighters hired in the City of Richmond and the Commonwealth of Virginia. On August 6, an unveiling of two murals depicting these first responders is scheduled at Mocha Temple. On August 7 from 6-10 p.m., a banquet will be held at the Trinity Life Center, and on August 8 at 9 a.m., there will be a worship service, also at Trinity Life Center.
“They persevered and that’s what we have to do,” Carter said. “We have to remember that spirit, we have to honor that spirit.”