Desegregation of the Oakland Fire Department

After WWI the firefighters of Oakland became members of an official, municipal fire department. Being a civic sector job, firefighting was a respected, middle class career. In 1920 the city hired its first three black firefighters. Due to the on-call nature of firefighting, firefighters would eat and sleep together through their shifts. A fire station was like a second home in many ways. Due to the prevailing racist attitudes, black firefighters were segregated away from the rest of the department. In 1926 Engine Company 22 opened at 34th and Magnolia in West Oakland. This is where all black firefighters in Oakland worked. Blacks would only be hired as firefighters if there was an opening at Engine 22. Being a firefighter was a better career choice than most other fields open to blacks at the time, so demand was high, but new positions were rare.

During this time white officers were assigned to supervise the black firefighters of Engine Company 22. Being moved to this position was a disciplinary punishment for the white officers, and at the same time prevented the black firefighters from moving up in rank and controlling their own firehouse.

It was not until the 1940s that blacks began to be promoted. At this time the men of Engine 22 began to offer classes and tutoring for WWII veterans looking to join the fire department. With more and more black men passing the firefighting exams and being hired, Engine 22 began to overcrowd. Transfer requests by members of Engine 22 were ignored. By 1947 the lightest skinned members of Engine 22 was transferred to an all white firehouse. Segregation was to still be enforced, and he was forced to cook, eat and sleep alone. He soon moved back to Engine 22.

While black firefighters had been promoted by then, the practice of sending white officers to temporarily serve at Engine 22 as disciplinary punishment still persisted. At these times, the black officers were demoted back to rank firefighters.

By the end of the 1940s the NAACP and other groups began to lobby on behalf of the black firefighters. One of the members of Engine 22, Ernest Allen, had a young girl with polio and had to often make trips to the hospital with her. He requested to be moved to a firehouse closer to his home so these hospital trips would be easier to make. The battalion chief refused the request. A hearing was set where Allen was facing suspension for claiming that his battalion chief told him that he was not being transferred due to race. The battalion chief denied this and felt it was an attack on his personal character, and demanded Allen be suspended. At the hearing Allens suspension was upheld, as was the refusal for his transfer. At the same time the white officers of the department who testified openly admitted to the racial segregation in the Oakland fire department. This created a wave of public outrage.

Calls to desegregate and improve working conditions were made by many, including some in the city government, but the final say was left up to the chief of the fire department. Bowing to the pressure, in 1952 the department officially desegregated. However, little changed for the next three years. It was not until 1955, when a new fire chief was appointed did change actually begin. Within two months of the new chief being sworn in, transfers for black firefighters began to be granted. Oakland became one of the first fire departments to desegregate in the country.

In Oakland, the reaction of white firefighters was more subdued than in other cities. In many fire stations around the country, when desgregation was introduced, white firefighters responded with violence. That is not to say that resentment and discrimination were not felt in the ranks of Oakland. Many of the older white firefighters did not socialize with the black firefighters. Often sleeping and eating arrangements were separated by race.

Over the years accusations of discrimination continued to be fought in the court systems and in the public eye. In 1980 Oakland hired its first women firefighters. in 1981 Samuel Golden was appointed the first black chief of the Oakland fire department. In 1990 a court ordered the Oakland fire department to diversify its ranks. In response a number of lawsuits by white plaintiffs claimed they were victims of reverse racism. Today around 15% of the Oakland fire department is made up of women and over half is made up of people of color. In 2012 Teresa Deloach Reed became chief of the Oakland fire department. In doing so she became the first black woman to become chief of a major metropolitan fire department.