60th Anniversary of first African-American firefighters in state - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

60th Anniversary of first African-American firefighters in state

By Melissa Correa - bio | email
Posted by Terry Alexander - email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) – Oscar Blake, Bernard Lewis and Frederick Robinson grew up in a different era.

On July 1, 1950 they were among the first 10 African-American firefighters in Virginia. They were hired to work Engine Company 9 on 5th and Duval in Richmond. Today a historical marker and plaque stand in place of the fire house.

"Some of the things that we had to endure simply because of the segregated system at that time," remembers Oscar Blake.

During a 60th celebration today the men explained how segregation impacted their work.

"There were three fire stations, I think it was about three, that we couldn't go through the front door," said Bernard Lewis. "We had to go around the back."

One fire in Highland Park will always remind Oscar Blake just how far society has come.

"Whites were still living over there and we responded. An old fellow came to the door and saw that we were black firefighters and he wouldn't let us in to fight the fire," he said.

Unlike any other fire house, Company 9 had to deliver laundry and was required to cut grass and paint city buildings in addition to firefighting.

"Not firefighter work, they just put blacks there doing it. It was demeaning and something we endured, but we persevered," said Blake.

For decades they stood their ground, never realizing they were clearing a path for future firefighters.

"We had made up our mind that we were going to be successful and not let them chase us out," said Lewis.

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