Aldermen approve plan to turn firehouse into African-American Firefighter Museum

02 Apr

BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter

The new site African-American firefighter's museum Bronzeville
The new site of the African-American firefighter’s museum in Bronzeville

Five years ago, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley turned a South Side firehouse where a racially-divisive retirement party took place into a museum honoring black firefighters.

It was viewed as “poetic justice” because of the ugly scene captured on videotape at Engine 100 showing white firefighters drinking beer, using racial slurs and even mooning the camera.

Monday was Take Two for the City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate.

Aldermen approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to turn Engine 61 — a vacant firehouse at 5349 S. Wabash built in 1929 — into the African-American Firefighter Museum.

The 10-year, $1 lease became necessary after Engine 100, 6843 S. Harper, turned out to be a turkey.

“The building was so old and there was so much work to be done….We were strapped trying to bring the place up to standard,” said museum founder Morris Davis.

“We’re on a dead-end street, one-way. We had no access to the second floor. It’s an open spiral staircase, which is a danger for [adults] and kids. We only had a small display in the museum, but we weren’t able to open to the public fully.”

Engine 61 will become the museum’s new home, complete with displays, photographs, artifacts and memorabilia honoring contributions made by black firefighters.

“In spite of all that racism, they were still able to make all of those contributions and still do what all of the other firemen did,” said Abdurrahim Khan, a member of the museum’s board of directors.

Highlights include:

◆ The invention by black firefighters of the sliding pole, the snorkel basket and the firefighters calendar that evolved to the current, 24 hours-on-and-48-hours-off.

◆ The 1873 hiring of Chicago’s first black firefighter William Watkins, who was assigned to Engine 21 and led by a union officer who commanded African-American soldiers during the Civil War.

◆ Engine 21’s 1888 rescue of a young boy by a black firefighter who leaped into a wagon drawn by a team of runaway horses.

◆ The 1958 promotion of Captain Grant Chaney as Chicago’s first black battalion chief. A confidante of powerful Congressman William “Big Bill” Dawson, Chaney was the Fire Department’s most influential Africa-American, presiding over black promotions and disciplinary action.

◆ The 1965 tragedy that triggered what museum proponents call “overnight integration” at the Chicago Fire Department.

It happened after Hook & Ladder 26 staffed by white firefighters left its house without a “tiller man” to control the rear end of the truck, causing it to swing out of control and kill a woman waiting for a bus.

Angry protesters blocked the door of the firehouse, refusing to let trucks enter. The crowd dispersed, only after African-American replacements were sent in. The following morning, 60 percent of Chicago’s black firefighters were sent to previously all-white houses.

◆ The 1973 filing of a federal class-action lawsuit accusing the Chicago Fire Department of discriminatory hiring and promotional practices. At the time, only 4 percent of Chicago’s 5,000 firefighters were black. The lawsuit resulted in a four-year freeze on hiring and promotions and a federal consent decree mandating minority hiring. Between 1977 and 1979, the number of black firefighters increased from 150 to roughly 400.

— The $78.4 million paid to compensate nearly 6,000 African-American would-be firefighters bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 entrance exam.

Davis said he was hired by the Chicago Fire Department in 1954 and made nine rescues during the course of his 38-year career.

“Six people that I rescued are still living. Three kids at one time,” said Davis, who was known as “Iron Jaw” in his firefighting days.”

“Black people need to be proud of their people and see that we are contributing to this city,” he said.


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