African American Firefighters In Oakland

Facing racism and discrimination African Americans have served the Oakland Fire Department with honor for nearly 100 years.

 

Royal Towns (center) and two Oakland firefighters standing outside of fire engine no. 22

In 1919 the city of Oakland began seeking and testing African Americans applicants to serve as firefighters for a segregated unit of the Oakland Fire Department. As a result of this test, on January 1, 1920, three African American men were hired.  The first firefighter worked at a pumping station at Lake Merritt until two additional men were hired. These men worked in the same firehouse on 8th and Alice as their white counterparts but on separate shifts.  In 1925, the first all-African American firehouse 22 Engine opened in west Oakland at 3230 Magnolia Street.

Royal Towns was one of the many African Americans to work at 22 Engine. He served as a firefighter for 17 years before being promoted to Lieutenant. He helped recruit African American firefighters and conducted classes to help them study for the fire-fighting exam. His recruitment efforts resulted in 25 African American fire fighters being hired.

As a result of these recruitments, African Americans fire houses became overcrowded. Twenty-two Engine, a firehouse that should have been a 5-person crew instead had 12-13 man shift. A city auditor’s report concluded that too many men were working at the station. This resulted in two more all black fire stations, Engines 33 and 28 opening in the Oakland hills.

The working conditions for African American firefighters were not compatible with those of their white counterparts.  Firefighters along with the NAACP challenged the status quo of Oakland Fire Department and sought changes in the working conditions. They began to fight back against racial, discriminatory and segregation practices.

Due to NAACP actions, the Oakland Fire Department “integrated” on June 1, 1952.  Samuel Golden, an African American Oakland firefighter coined this “token integration”. In integrated houses, African American firefighters were not allowed to use the refrigerator. The wives of the firefighters brought them meals while on shift. They had to bring their own sleeping materials to sleep on as white firefighters would not let them use theirs. Labor leaders C.L. Dellums and Tarea Hall Pittman were instrumental in getting Oakland fire and police departments to integrate. According to Samuel Golden, after pressure from the city manager, the department hired light-skinned firefighters to integrate an all-white station.

Unsatisfied with this form of integration, C.L. Dellums, the NAACP and other firemen approached the Oakland City Manager in 1955 to voice their concerns.  As a result, official integration took place on August 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 the younger white firefighters began to replace the older retiring firefighters.

Promotions:

Moving up the ranks was tough. The first African American promoted in the OFD was Royce Troyce.  He was promoted to engineer in the early 30’s at 22 Engine. Pat Taylor was promoted to LT. becoming first black lieutenant. Pat Taylor became captain in 1949 the highest rank African American in Oakland Fire Department until 1973 when Sam Golden made Battalion Chief.

African American Chiefs in Oakland

  • Samuel Golden

Sam was promoted to the rank of engineer in 1958, lieutenant in 1961, captain in 1964, and battalion chief in 1973. In 1981 he became fire chief making him the first African American fire chief in Oakland. 

  • Godwin Taylor
  • Lamont Ewell
  • Teresa Deloach-Reed

For more information on Black firefighters in the Oakland Fire Department please check out the archival interview of Samuel Golden and Lamont Ewell interviews on our African American Museum and Library’s page on archive.org. Also check the stories from victims of the 1990 Oakland Hills fire.

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