It is important to understand the past in order to move toward a bright future. Jimmy Smith, the lead docent at the African American Firefighter Museum (AAFFM) in Los Angeles, understands that well. He regularly guides visitors through powerful exhibits featuring LAFD heroes who have overcome racial segregation and other societal obstacles as far back as the late 19th century. Jimmy has shared his wealth of knowledge with firefighters and the public alike since the museum opened in 1997.
Originally from Indy, Indiana, Jimmy is a retired Northrop Grumman Fire Safety Director. He shines a light on what drives his dedication to the museum. “Enlightening people is the thing. Many leave in tears. People don’t realize what these firefighters dealt with until then.”
Fire Station 30 was built in 1902, after George Bright, one of the first black firefighters was promoted to Lieutenant. He was moved to station 30 with four firefighters of color to serve the surrounding community of all white-owned businesses and residences. Jimmy references a display featuring a horse-drawn water wagon. “They got to and fought fires with this equipment,” he says. “When some people saw that the responding firefighters were black, they would refuse to let them put the fire out. They actually chose to let the place burn down.” Since that time, society has improved its perception of all firefighters. Los Angelenos have recognized expressed appreciation for all LAFD heroes in service.
Jimmy says, “No matter how many terrible things were done to the men, they always came back to work the next day.” This speaks to the service-oriented commitment of these firefighters and their dedication to the community.
Jimmy first learned about the museum when he was invited on a tour from a previous museum President, Captain Brent Burton . Of his continued volunteerism over the last 21 years, he says, “It is an honor and privilege to be there and share their story.”
African American Firefighter Museum History
The historic Fire Station 30 now houses the museum. During the segregation years, it was one of only two fire stations where African American firefighters worked. Since firefighting careers were regarded as highly prestigious, this eventually led to overcrowding and available opportunities for black firefighters were limited. After integration, Fire Station 30 operated until 1980, when it was closed due to earthquake damage. It sat empty for the next 15 years until late firefighter Arnett “The Rookie” Hartsfield Jr. (1940 – 1961) went to the city council and successfully pitched the idea for the museum. Arnett received his law degree from USC in 1955 and led integration efforts in the mid-1950s.
The African American Firefighter Museum is the only one in the country dedicated to collecting, preserving, and showcasing the history of African American firefighters. Notably, Sam Haskins, who was born enslaved, joined the department as the first black firefighter in 1892. Also, five pioneer firefighters were Tuskegee airmen.
All are welcome to explore the rich heritage on display and learn about the challenges of the past. “We’re a non-profit that is kept alive through volunteers and by donations,” says Jimmy, referencing a donation box in the museum. “Other revenue comes from contributions from our tours, child-friendly events, wedding parties, baby showers, book readings, and civic-minded programs.”
He invites anyone interested in learning more about this legacy to consider visiting the museum. There, you will find antique LAFD exhibits along with the well-preserved fire station memorabilia from an important era of American history.
By Madeline Wright
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