Local artists pay tribute to Virginia’s first Black career firefighters

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — More than 71 years after the first Black career firefighters were hired in the City of Richmond, three local artists are paying tribute through a mural to the original 10 men who were selected out of 500 applicants.

On July 1, 1950, the Richmond Fire Department (RFD), then named the Richmond Fire Bureau, hired 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. They were assigned to Engine Company #9 at 5th and Duval Streets in Richmond.

Not only were these 10 men the first Black career firefighters in the City, but also they were the first Black career firefighters in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“When we honor our past, it shows our community [the] people who have been here before we got here,” Jackson Ward native and artist Sir James Thornhill said. “They were 10 gentlemen hired out of 500, who went to perform their duties and there was all kinds of obstacles in the way. These guys had it tough.”

Thornhill has been working alongside Jason Ford and Kevin Orlosky to bring the mural in Jackson Ward to life. The artwork is located on the wall of the Mocha Temple on N 2nd Street.

Thornhill spray paints the center of the mural in Jackson Ward. (Photo: Olivia Jaquith)

“I remember the firefighters,” Thornhill said. “I remember all the neighborhood and the things that they did that really helped us at a younger age and inspired us and pretty much kept us from straying to a different path.”

Thornhill said that the story of Engine Company #9 is one that often goes untold, which is why he wanted to take part in an artistic project to honor their memory.

“It wasn’t just the fact that they were firefighters, but [also] the fact that they were a staple in the community,” he said. “They made themselves present and we all looked up to them for that.”

The right side of the mural, being painted by Orlosky, shows firefighters giving a gift to a child, which Thornhill said he remembered happening around the holidays. The center of the mural shows four of the firefighters in uniform beneath the seal of the Richmond Fire Department, for which Thornhill is responsible. The left side of the mural focuses on Engine Company #9’s bright, red fire engine, which Ford painted.

“As a kid, I was just infatuated with just older vehicles, fire engines, of course,” Ford said. “This particular engine, of course, it’s gleaming red and it has character. So, for me, it was just making sure I had the perspective straight, I had all of the details already aligned, and so I start with a basic sketch, which serves as that blueprint, and then kind of build layers up from there.”

The company was integrated on July 6, 1963. Engine Company #9 was demolished in 1968. On July 1, 2000, the site of the former station became a historical landmark.

The mural will officially be unveiled on Aug. 6.

“You come down the street and you see how large it is,” Thornhill said. “They’re going to be seen in live and living color.”

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