The History of San Diego Fire Station 19. (Old 19’s)
Throughout the 20th century, African Americans have served the citizens of San Diego as firefighters and have proven their ability to save lives and protect property.
Firefighters do so much for our city. Especially Black firefighters, whose history is yet to be recognized to the standards they should be. Making serving the community available to all, saving our city from fires, and diversifying the firefighting community are just a few examples of what they do for us.
In this story stone, we are honoring the first African-Americans to be in the San Diego Fire Department, and highlighting the struggles they went through. It all began in 1889, when the fire department was first established in San Diego. At that time, there were no women or people of color in the department.
On September 16th, 1919 Timothy Williams, Sandy Baker, and James Cross officially became the first African American firefighters hired by the San Diego Fire Department. Their hirings were the result of years of pressure from the African American community. The following year, Joe Smith joined Williams, Baker and Cross at Fire Station #3, then located at 5th and Palm streets. Eventually they were transferred to Logan heights ten years later. Since Logan Heights used to be a primarily white neighborhood, a petition was filed by the white community to have them removed from the Kearny Street station. (See article from San Diego newspaper) Hence, the men were moved back to Fire Station #3 on 5th Ave. (Later they were moved to this station at 3601 Ocean View Blvd. (Approximately 1932)“When more African-Americans were hired in the 1940s, they too were sent to station 19. It became San Diego's black fire station.”
Approximately 22 years later, the next wave of African American firefighters were hired: Joel Bowden 1942 (first hire) and Sheldon Perry 1945 joined Timothy Williams at fire station 19.
The next round of hiring would include many Trail Blazers that helped shape our current department, including Sylvester Williams 1946, Earl Varner 1948, Warren Jones 1949, Dennis Rucker 1950, Charles Robinson, Howard Morse and Alvin Holman Sr. 1951.
When these men were hired, African Americans were only allowed to work at fire station #19. Then in late 1950’s then Fire Chief George cursor had firefighter Hollman sent to fire station #14 to provide a relief. “He said you're going to be my Jackie Robinson of the fire department. And, uh, knowing about Jackie Robinson breaking into baseball, I understood what he meant,” said Holeman about Chief Courser. The uproar which ensured prompted chief Cursor to issue an order stating that from that moment forward, the San Diego Fire Department would be integrated, any man not willing to abide by the order could quit. By removing the station assignment restrictions, these men were able to better compete in the promotional process, and their eventual ranks include one engineer, 3 captains, and one Battalion Chief, and one Deputy Chief.
The desegregation of the fire department also meant that more African Americans would get the opportunity to become San Diego firefighters. African Americans hired in the mid to late 1950s include S Williams 1953, E. Howel and E Banks 1954, Charles Reed 1955, William “Barney” Barnes and Albert “guns” Rucker 1958, and Robert Osby 1959. The ranks yielded out of this group include two Engineers one Captain and the former Fire Chief Robert Osby. In addition Charles Reed became an elected member of San Diego Community College District.
During the 1960s the number of African Americans hired by the department increased an included Renix Gram 1960, John Deloach and Oscar “Boyd” Flag 1963, James Higgins 1964, Paul Berryman 1966, James Vaughn 1968, and Alford Montgomery 1969.
During the 1970s the number of African Americans on the San Diego Fire Department swelled with the hiring of “Big Al” Burnett 1970, Willie Cameron and David Newsome 1972, Samuel Oates 1973, Clifton Cameron, Gerry “Tony” Polard, Earl Shepherd, Joseph Robinson, Charles McAffee, Cleo P Hill and Arlister Tillory Jr 1974, Kenneth Watson 1975, Renee Nurse, Fred Scott, Michael Brown, John Horton and Martin Rawlings 1976, Kenneth Key, Michael Reed, Ron Robinson, William Carter, Ed Stephenson, Ronald Powel, Geary “Tony” Pollard (second hire) 1977, Charles Mullins, Alwin Holman Jr and Samuel Campbell 1978.
There has been a total of six African American women hired by San Diego fire department starting in the 1980s. In 1990 Pamela Thomas and Lorraine Hutchinson were hired. Lorraine retired as a Deputy Chief (Shift Commander). Pamela retired as a Supervising Deputy Fire Marshal.
As a result of civil rights movement during the 1960s, the 1970s brought about many organizations working to further African American causes within American Society. The fire service also witnessed the birth of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters (IABPFF) in 1970. Having heard about the IABPFF engineers Deloatch and Berryman called all the African American firefighters together. At the meeting a decision was made to pull their monies to send engineer Osby to the 1972 IABPFF conference. When Osby returned to San Diego from the conference, Brothers United, San Diego Firefighters Incorporated was formed. The following year Brothers United SDFF, Inc was officially recognized as the 23rd organization to join the IABPFF.
Fire Station 19 was eventually used as a meeting hall for Brothers United when the City retired the station. The agreement between the City of San Diego was originally orchestrated by Federal Fire Department Deputy Chief Bill Brown.
Since its inception Brothers United has maintained a racially diverse membership roster, Brothers United also made IABPFF history by including the first Latino and Caucasian members accepted into the organization. Today Brothers United still boasts the most diverse roster in IABPFF their members always strive to provide service to the San Diego community via pre hire classes, student mentoring, community activism, food programs, fire safety education scholarship assistance and charitable contributions.
Historical Site #893:
In 2009 Brothers United members Lawrence Gordon, Jonathan (JB) Bowens, and Ronnie Hicks created The Historical Fire Station 19 Foundation. Along with restoring the building, this nonprofit organization was created to raise funds to educate the public of the history and contributions of the African American firefighters and their experiences within San Diego by exploring documenting, preserving, and showcasing their stories and historical artifacts.
The fire station was designated as Historical Resources Site #893 by the City of San Diego Historical Resources Board on May 28, 2009. This was due to the building reflecting the racial segregation of African American Firefighters from 1932 to the 1950’s, pre-Civil Rights movement.
In conclusion, the African-American firefighters of San Diego County have played such an important role in history. They have set a positive example for everyone to realize that anything is possible, even if it seems impossible by the standards set by society. This is why we need to recognize what they have done, because without people acknowledging the firefighters' feats, what good has all of their hard work been?
Holtzman, J., & Broadcasting, K. P. B. S. P. (2007, January 17). SD's African American firefighters broke the color barrier in '50s. KPBS Public Media. Retrieved May 5, 2022, from https://www.kpbs.org/news/2007/01/17/sds-african-american-firefighters-broke-the-color
Written by: Ly, Deuce, Tillie, Juan Pablo, Gyonne and Nox
President / CEO / Historian
The Historical Fire Station 19 Foundation