Hayti’s first fire company lacked resources, not courage

N.C. Central University’s Campus Police and Public Safety building on the corner of Fayetteville St. and Pekoe Ave. holds a special place in history — it was the first Durham fire station to have an all African-American crew salaried by the city.

From the '50s, the firefighters receive training. (Photo courtesy of the Durham Fire Department)

From the ’50s, the firefighters receive training. (Photo courtesy of the Durham Fire Department)

The 1,088 square-foot building was the old engine house for Fire Station No. 4. It opened Oct. 1, 1958, and served the predominantly black Hayti neighborhoods.

While the 10 firemen of Station No. 4 — Walter Thomas, Elgin Johnson, George W. King, Velton Thompson, Robert Medlyn, John O. Lyon, Nathaniel Thompson, Sylvester Hall, Thomas Harris and Lynwood Howard — had reached a milestone, they still felt opposition from a racially segregated department and society.

White people from the community “used to call them out on false calls so they could go in and tear up the station,” said Sandra Howard, the daughter of firefighter Howard.

“They would urinate on their uniforms and tear up their personal items,” she said. Howard, an administrative support associate in the department of language and literature at NCCU, explained that her father and the other black firefighters at Station No. 4 did not get proper equipment or training.

The 10 men had to use “hand-me-down” equipment, including an old fire truck.

While the white community was hostile, one particular reaction to the black firefighters was appalling. Annie Howard, the late firefighter Howard’s wife, recalled this incident:

“A white lady out on Barbee Road had called and because they were closer [and my husband’s crew] got to the house first, she said, ‘I will not have these n——s touching my house. Do not touch my house.’ So she waited for the firefighters from downtown to come because they were all white.”

Howard said her husband told her the house had burned down by the time the white firefighters arrived.

A clipping from the local paper from 1958.

A clipping from the local paper from 1958.

“I thought to myself, how can a person say that, if their house is on fire, if a life is involved, but that’s the kind of mentality we had to deal with at the time,” recalled George W. King, one of the firemen from Station No. 4, in a 2009 interview with The Triangle Tribune.

In time, James E. Shepard’s 1944 prediction, made on the “Town Hall” radio program, seemed within view. North Carolina, he said, “was a civilized Christian community that believes in democracy,” and could be counted on to make “needed social, political and economic adjustments.”

The civil rights work of the Durham Committee on Negro Affairs and Mayor Emmanuel J. “Mutt” Evans helped get African-Americans into the city’s fire department. The committee, which began its work in 1935, and the mayor, who served from 1951-63, had worked together closely to get “equality for all Durham residents.”

By 1969, the fire department was integrated, and the 10 firefighters of Station No. 4 were working at fire stations throughout Durham.

Many had received promotions. Five of the 10 became officers, three became captains, King became assistant chief, and Thompson made history in 1985 when he became Durham’s first African-American fire chief.

In 1999, Station No. 4 was closed and relocated to Riddle Road.

In 2004, it was renovated and became NCCU’s Campus Police Station.

Courtesy of the Campus Echo

7 thoughts on “Hayti’s first fire company lacked resources, not courage

  1. Monique Lewis
    I have been studying the history of the Durham fire dept. for 40 plus years.
    Documentation has been recorded in most all libraries in the state,
    Your article has prompted me to comment on your article.

    When doing a historical article facts, please keep the truth going on for future generations. Statements that are not true create “Holes in history” in the future generations.

    Please correct your web site. Having worked with those men in station 4, and in the DFD for 31 years , the group of black firefighters in station 4 were the first paid black firefighters in the history of Durham, not the first as you quoted.

    The Excelsior Hook and Ladder Company were the first volunteer black fire fighters in Durham.
    Let’s correct and preserve the great history of Durham.

    Please the facts;



    Tommy Fowler
    Retired Capt. DFD

    • Tommy Fowler were you born in Durham? I am a genealogist. I am interested in Fowler Avenue in the Hayti District. It was eliminated with the redevelopment. Supposedly it is named for Minerva Fowler. Who was she? Do the names Green Fowler or Jarvis Fowler mean anything to you? Kirk Fowler kirkdfowler@gmail.com California

  2. Tom Fowler,

    The first paragraph of my article states, “It was the first Durham fire station to have an all African-American crew salaried by the city.” Which coincides with your research on the firefighter’s being the first paid black firefighters in the history of Durham. So I don’t see the correction that needs to be made if that is already stated.

    Thank you,

    Monique Lewis

    • The one word salaried, I did over look. When I finished the article it appeared the first black firefighters were the first in Durham.
      I welcome you to do a history lesson on the 1890 crew. You pull up the families living today and they will be happy to learn that their family helped build Durham.
      We have not been able reach but a few. The Bart Barbee family had information that lead to the Fayetteville Rd cemetry where we were able to find the grave of a true hero.
      These were the the builders of our city history..

  3. Tom,

    I strongly encourage that you read an article twice before commenting. Your comment really make your look unintelligent

    Best Regard,

    Jim (Retired Durham County Police Officer)

  4. Ha.. Typical response

    […] The Durham VOICE profiles Durham’s Fire Station No. 4, the first Durham fire station to have an all-black staff. [Durham VOICE] […]

    The first black firefighters was in circa 1890. Do some research Jim . My response was to Monique .
    True Heros in Durham were the first firefighters that made our city what we are now.

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