There have been Black firefighters in Philadelphia for more than 136 years, but their ongoing fight for inclusion and acceptance in today’s force is part of a long legacy of racial inequity in the city.
Despite an increase in firefighters of color joining the ranks, Black firefighters represent 28% of a total of 2,797 full-time firefighters, according to a 2021 Philadelphia Fire Department City Council report. White firefighters make up the majority, representing 60% of firefighters.
Those currently serving as firefighters share hopes of inspiring the future generation of Black and brown firefighters, continuing to light the torch of diversity in the department.
Raised between his grandparents’ homes on 49th and Reno Streets and 50th and Ogden Streets, Ernest Hospedale, one of two Black firefighters at the Fire Engine 5 Company in West Powelton, recalls growing up not seeing firefighters who looked like him.
“When I was a child watching firefighters, it wasn’t this diverse,” said Hospedale.
One of his favorite things about the job is interacting with the residents in the area.
“It’s been positive overall, a very enlightening and rewarding experience working with people within your own community and being a positive example for Black and brown children to see us as positive Black and brown role models.”
Being the face of an underrepresented group comes with its challenges. The remnants of a long and dark history of racism and anti-Blackness in the Philadelphia Fire Department are still felt by Black firefighters today.
“A lot of challenges that Black fighters face are psychological. They’re almost like a microcosm of the world, most of us have to work [twice as hard] to get half as far,” said Hospedale, repeating a saying often relayed to Black youth. “Being a Black person in a space that is predominantly White, you’re already running behind the eight ball.”
Issues of diversity in the firefighting ranks aren’t unique to the Philadelphia Fire Department. A report from Data USA found that only about 6% of all firefighters in the United States are Black, with White firefighters making up 80% of all firefighters. Pushing for diversity in fire departments is a climbing struggle, considering that historically, fire departments in America have been White-dominated spaces where institutional racism and deep-rooted nepotism are ingrained, keeping others out.
“Some people have called Black firefighters quota hires,” said Hospedale. “Many of us are first-generation firefighters; we didn’t have our dads, granddads, brothers and uncles that were previous firefighters. We have to learn on our own.”
Lamont Cooper, another firefighter at Engine 5, expressed a similar experience in becoming a firefighter.
“All of it was brand new to me,” Cooper said. “We had a lot of people who had family in the [Fire] Academy so they kind of knew how things went, but for someone who didn’t know it was like taking on a new journey.”
The PFD is no different from other fire departments in the country that are struggling with cultural shifts in fire stations and the insular “family business” model becoming less traditional.
“Sometimes the culture challenges can be different, there have been issues with hair. I have locs, that’s been a fight on many occasions because that’s not deemed proper or professional,” said Hospedale. “I don’t have the ‘look’ of a firefighter; [but] my hair does not hinder my professionalism nor hinder my skill set.”
Black firefighters have dealt with more than just microaggressions in fire departments. Black cadets at Fire Academy are told of the horror stories of the racism and structural barriers Black firefighters have experienced throughout PFD’s history.
In 1886 the Philadelphia Fire Department appointed its first Black firefighter, Isaac Jacobs. He was hired as a horseman at Engine 11, what would later become the first all-Black fire company in Philadelphia. In 1891, Stephen Presco became the second African American hired by the PFD.
By 1923, Engine 11 had a full company of twenty Black firemen. Although, these firefighters worked under White supervisors and chiefs while still living in segregated quarters, with “Blacks-only” silverware, plates, and cots.
Engine 11 remained Philadelphia’s de facto all-Black firehouse until the desegregation of the Fire Department in 1952, according to the Great Migration Project, a curation of the historical documents that capture the Black experience in Philadelphia during the early 20th century.
Integration brought an influx of Black people joining the Fire Department, though the newly acquired members were not welcomed with open arms. In response to resistance, Black firefighters formed the Valiants of Philadelphia in 1962, a fraternal society of Black and Latino firefighters in Pennsylvania. The Valiants’ initial mission was to combat racism against African American firefighters. Soon after, members began doing fire safety outreach programs and recruiting efforts in communities of color.
Former captain Lisa Forrest became Philadelphia’s first Black woman battalion chief in 2021, a hundred and forty-nine years after the department’s founding. Only three women have been appointed battalion chiefs. It wasn’t until 1985 that female firefighters started joining PFD.
Keeping all this history in mind is what makes the existence of Black firefighters all the more important. For Cooper, who grew up in North Philly, it’s important to him to set the right example for the youth in his neighborhood.
“Like most inner-city kids — that’s from where I’m from — I was just really trying to find purpose,” said Cooper. “It’s an amazing thing to be a firefighter, coming from how I was raised and going back and being able to inspire young inner-city kids, letting them see something different from what they see on a regular basis.”
Diversifying the PFD will not only help to reflect the neighborhoods they serve but will also bridge the gap between firefighters and residents.
“You’re in a community full of diversity” said Cooper. “How can you appropriately serve your community if you don’t know where they come from?”
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-Editor’s note: A line was removed to avoid confusion and add clarity about Philadelphia Fire Explorers.