Over the last few years, I have become a connoisseur of small museums. Instead of taking on a broad swath of subject matter, they appear to be restricted to a small, concentrated area. When they succeed, one finds that you have been led to confront larger issues than you originally anticipated. So it is with the African American Firefighter Museum at 14th Street and Central Avenue in downtown Los Angeles.
I expected to hear stories of pride and courage as firefighters sacrifice to save lives and property, but I came away with a sobering consciousness of American racism. For many years, black firefighters were restricted to two engine companies in the African American neighborhoods south of Downtown L.A., one of which, shown above, has been converted into a museum. Finally, in the 1950s, the LAFD was to be integrated. Consequently, existing black firefighters were distributed among hitherto white only engine companies.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times commemorating the opening of the museum:
Only those who were there would remember.
The way Wallace DeCuir entered the station and greeted his colleagues every morning, knowing they would ignore him.
The way Reynaldo Lopez kept his cool, even after a “Whites Only” sign was hung from the kitchen door.
The day someone smeared feces on Earnest Roberts’ pillow, and the other men watched.
The year was 1955. LAFD Fire Chief John H. Alderson said that the segregation policy was being implemented on schedule, but that it would take five years or more to “take” in all the fire stations. In the meantime, he did nothing to enforce the agency’s integration policy and was finally forced to take an early retirement.
Exhibits like this reminded me of the way things were in the 1950s, which we whites considered to be some sort of Golden Age. Yes, but not for everybody.
I sat for a couple of hours looking at a scrapbook of news stories from the 1950s of what black firefighters had to endure in order to work side by side with their white colleagues. In the end, I was appalled that the men who are charged with saving our lives and property have to endure as a result of the racism of their colleagues.
Los Angeles has four museums dedicated to firefighters. So far I have visited three of them, and one of them, this one, taught me some sobering lessons.
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