LOS ANGELES – They fought fires with courage and distinction, only to be segregated within their own department.
And though that era ended long ago, the fight for equality is far from over.
They are Los Angeles’ Black firefighters, and the museum established in their honor just commemorated its 25th anniversary.
The location of the African American Firefighter Museum couldn’t be more appropriate: the city’s old Station 30, one of two segregated firehouses in Los Angeles between 1924 and 1955.
As if segregation wasn’t bad enough, when Black firefighters were eventually transferred to stations where they served with white firefighters, they were treated as outcasts. They were forced to eat alone with their own utensils and became the target of cruel pranks, according to the museum’s official history.
Discrimination has repeatedly cropped up as an issue in the past few years. In 2021, for instance, leaders of the Black and Latino firefighters in the Los Angeles Fire Department called for a federal investigation into racial bias.
The city named a Black fire chief in 2009, and flashing forward to today, the department now has hundreds of Black firefighters. It created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Bureau last year.
Yet to those who remember when their ranks were far smaller, the goals remain – and not just for the city’s fire department.
Daryl Osby, the former chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the first African American to hold that position, agrees that the struggle still continues because of the barriers in place.
Osby said at the event marking the museum’s 25th anniversary that African Americans lag in statistics on living conditions, economics, health, and housing.
The museum’s first president and a founding board member, Michelle Banks, is passionate about rounding up donations and volunteers to keep the retired firehouse up and running.
“The mission and purpose of the museum is to collect, conserve, and share the history of Black firefighters through collaboration,” Banks said.
Using the stories of the Black men who integrated the LAFD shows how individual and collective action can advance society.
The museum aims to promote diversity and stand up against inequality, whether it is race or gender. “While great strides have been made, inequality is still present,” county Fire Capt. Brent Burton said. He wants to continue spreading the legacy and impact Black firefighters made in a segregated world.
At the celebration, Burton told the audience that the museum has 130 years of Black firefighter history. And it wants more, not just with Blacks but women as well.
“We want more African American females. We want more females because diversity is our strength. And without diversity, we will not be strong enough to continue on what we’re doing today,” said Los Angeles Fire Inspector Gerald Durant.
LA County Fire Department Chief Anthony Marrone recognized the Black firefighters who paved the way and reflected on the need for more diverse departments. Marrone said he believes fire departments must ensure an equitable and welcoming workplace, free of discrimination, and we must all advocate for diversity.
“The fire service should represent all walks of life with members from diverse backgrounds, each sharing their own stories of what inspired them to be proud protectors of life and property on our watch,” Marrone said.