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Black History Month: Memphis Fire Museum opens new exhibit honoring African American firefighters

Published: Feb. 13, 2022 at 9:56 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - In celebration of Black History Month, Action News 5 is taking a look at the history of the Memphis Fire Department.

Fire Station 8 at the intersection of Crump and Mississippi Boulevard once housed the first African American firefighters who joined the Memphis Fire Department in 1955.

The building is no longer standing, but the 12 men who served there paved the way for those who would come after them.

“They were our teachers and we learned a lot from them,” said retired Memphis Fire Department division chief, Ronald E. Mitchell Sr.

Mitchell joined the Memphis Fire Department in 1977. He served for 34 years, moving up the ranks and retiring as a division chief.

His recruit class was the first to be integrated within the Memphis Fire Department. He said he had personal relationships with many of the original 12 firefighters.

“They went through a lot of stuff,” Mitchell said. “They got a lot of the dirtier jobs. they would get the bad assignments.”

The men also had to overcome racial barriers, including obstacles like not being able to go to the homes of white residents without permission, pay and rank disparities, and segregation within the firehouses.

“They had a set up where in each fire station, when they started to detail Blacks to other stations, they had one bed that was allocated as the “Black” bed and that was the bed they wanted all the Blacks to sleep in. You couldn’t just pick a bed like everybody else,” Mitchell recalled.

However, Mitchell said the firefighters were intent on proving the naysayers wrong, and they did just that.

“They had hopes of making ranks and doing things, and most of them did accumulate rank,” Mitchell said.

It made room for firefighters like Assistant Fire Chief Colin Burress, who is second in command within the Memphis Fire Department.

“The success that I have had is a direct result to the first 12 and those that came after them,” Burress said.

The Department started with 12 Black firefighters and has now grown to 800, which makes up 48% of Memphis firefighters.

“It’s something that I’m grateful to see. Diversity, equity, and inclusion is baked into everything we do on a daily basis,” Burress said.

Now, a new exhibit at the Memphis Fire Museum honors the 12 African American firefighters and all the Black firefighters who would follow. It’s a mark in history that will live on forever.

“It’s great to be able to see somebody that resembles or looks like you and at one time, it wasn’t that way and now that it is. It’s great because we hope that little person takes away the love for this profession, the job and they say I either know that person, that person looks like me, I can grow up and be that,” Burress said.

For more information on the new exhibit and the Fire Museum of Memphis, click here.

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