Editor’s note: Rudy Martinez, a Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member and frequent contributor to this blog, provides another fascinating story of the community’s history with this post about Sam Haskins, the first black member of the Los Angeles Fire Department. The three-part post begins with some background on Haskins up to and including his joining the department. – Paul R. Spitzzeri
When Sam Haskins, the first African-American firefighter for the Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD), tragically died in downtown Los Angeles in 1895, local newspapers depicted him as a rather exceptional citizen in his adopted city. Haskins was not only an LAFD pioneer, he was also briefly involved in politics, and also proved he was unafraid to confront lawlessness as a private citizen.
At Haskins’ funeral, the Los Angeles Herald remarked that “the popularity of Haskins is shown by the large number of people, black and white, and of nearly all nationalities who have visited the morgue to view the remains.” After a large turnout at his funeral, the unmarried Haskins were buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.
The man and his deeds, however, quickly faded from memory, forgotten for over a century. This post examines his life in Los Angeles and the events in 2002 that led to the rediscovery of his unmarked grave in Boyle Heights as well as a newfound recognition of the significant legacy he left.
Haskins was born in Virginia, very likely into slavery, in 1846. However, little about his life has been documented before he arrived in Los Angeles sometime in the early 1880s. In Los Angeles City Directories from 1883 to 1891, Sam (or Samuel) Haskins is listed at several addresses, all near the vicinity of First and Main Streets. His occupations are given as a second cook, tradesman, bootblack, porter, and steward.
Displaying an interest in electoral politics, Haskins sought, and was appointed, the position of sergeant at arms at the Democratic City Convention in Los Angeles in February 1889. On September 12, 1890, the Herald reported that “a number of colored Democrats” formed a new club called the Democratic Colored Zouaves (DCZ). “The purpose of the club is to advance Democracy and the colored race,” said Haskins, who was selected as its first lieutenant, but subsequent stories described him as the chairman, president, or captain of the club.
Later that month, a large parade of Democratic delegates marched in downtown Los Angeles gearing up for the state’s gubernatorial election in November. Significantly, the Herald briefly noted, “Capt. Sam Haskins, led the Colored Zouaves, headed by the Eureka colored band. These were the first colored men who have turned out in a Democratic parade in the city.” Though met with some initial enthusiasm, it appears the DCZ didn’t last beyond the gubernatorial election.
Haskins also distinguished himself with the city’s police department in, at least, two interesting ways. Local newspapers reported that, on April 29, 1891, officer Valencia was bringing in an arrested man named Albert Spencer to the station when they were confronted by Spencer’s friend who demanded his release. When Valencia refused, the man took a shot at the officer but missed. According to the Herald, “before he could use it again, the pistol was seized by Sam Haskins, the colored politician, who sustained a painful injury when the descending hammer of the gun caught the fleshy part of his hand. Together, he and Valencia disarmed the man, then hunted down Spencer, who by that time, had run away.”
On June 7, the Herald reported that the day before, Haskins calmly convinced a suicidal ex-police officer named Dan Lynch, who was holding a razor to his own neck in front of a saloon, to put it down. Lynch eventually complied and was taken in by police. The following year Haskins again distinguished himself in a significant precedent that would prove to be a milestone for the recently established Los Angeles Fire Department, the city of Los Angeles, and African Americans.
On February 1, 1886, with only four staffed and provisioned fire stations, the LAFD officially went into service, largely replacing the volunteer fire companies that had served the city since 1869. Many of the initial members were likely former volunteers; however, all prospective LAFD members had to apply to the Fire Commission for assessment of their qualifications and suitability for the position.
The exact details leading up to Haskins’ selection to the LAFD’s reserve unit are unknown, but on June 1, 1892, Haskins was officially appointed by the Los Angeles Fire Commission as a call-man and assigned to Engine Company No. 4, located at Sixteenth Street, between Grand Avenue and Hope Street. A call-man generally worked a part-time schedule at an assigned station house and probably worked a couple of 24-hour shifts a month, filling in for members who were sick or not scheduled to work. They were also required to attend drills with their assigned outfit twice a month, and in return, call-men were paid a small honorarium.
Even by this early date, being a member of the LAFD was a prestigious position, and, with no shortage of applicants, this said a lot about Haskins. However, because he was black, department historians believe that even though he was presumably well-liked and trusted to do his best, Haskins’ bunk was most likely segregated from the other men within the station house. Additionally, he may not have necessarily taken his meals with the rest of the station crew.
For Los Angeles firemen in the 1890s, just getting to an active fire could be a harrowing experience. When they responded to an alarm, the men took their places aboard a rig that was, essentially, a four-wheeled sprung carriage outfitted with various firefighting apparatuses, usually pulled by a team of at least two Percheron horses, a particularly muscular draft animal.
Most of the city’s unpaved roads were scattered with holes, wheel ruts, and cable car tracks. And fires were such a spectacle that large crowds would jam the streets with horses, buggies, bicycles, and even trolley and cable cars. By late 1895, nine years after it was established, the LAFD had yet to lose a single member while fighting or responding to an active incident. But in November, the department would mourn the loss of their first fireman under those very perilous circumstances.
Join us next week for the second part of this excellent accounting of the life of Sam Haskins!