This third and final part of Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board Member Rudy Martinez’ post on Samuel (Sam) Haskins, the first black member of the Los Angeles Fire Department, takes us to the long-overdue recognition of Haskins, who died in line of duty in an 1895 accident, being the first department member to do so, and was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. – Paul R. Spizzeri
On October 2, 1897, two years after Haskins death, Los Angeles Fire Department commissioners hired George Bright as a call man and, just four weeks later, promoted him to a hose man, making Bright the first full-time black firefighter for the LAFD.
Bright made lieutenant in 1902 and was assigned to command Chemical Company No. 1, a recently formed company made up of black and Mexican-American firemen, ensuring Bright did not command white firemen. Bright’s hiring, however, ultimately opened the door for more full-time black firefighters in the department, though they were continually segregated to several all-black fire companies.
In 1955, following the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision issued the previous year striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools, the LAFD commission ordered the department to integrate. The transition continued to be fraught with tension and hostility into the next decade as black firemen began working within what were once all-white fire companies.
A number of African-American firemen formed a group called the Stentorians in 1954 to lend guidance and support to black LAFD personnel experiencing acts of racial discrimination and segregation. Despite the racial animus, African-Americans continued to join the LAFD and to serve among white firefighters, and, like all firefighters and other first responders, were prepared and trained to face unexpected and perilous conditions.
Nevertheless, the department’s resistance during the first half of the twentieth century towards the idea of a racially integrated organization also contributed to long-standing errors in their historical record, beginning with the long-held belief that George Bright was the first hired black member of the LAFD.
Another example of inaccuracy concerns the death of firefighter Thomas C. Collier on July 8, 1970. Collier was killed during a high-rise fire in downtown Los Angeles when the 85-foot snorkel (a hydraulic extending boom with a basket platform at the top) he was riding in lurched and collapsed onto the street. A highly respected 28-year LAFD veteran, Collier was declared the first African American firefighter in the department’s history to die during an active incident.
Along with George Bright, Arnett Hartsfield, and other early black firefighters, Collier’s name is etched in department history as an example of the pioneering efforts and unselfish dedication African-American firefighters have contributed in service to the Los Angeles Fire Department over many years.
At the time of Collier’s death, however, LAFD personnel, including members of the Stentorians, were unaware that Sam Haskins was not only the first African American firefighter hired by the LAFD but also the first LAFD firefighter killed during an active incident. No one even knew or remembered, that he existed. Moreover, it would remain that way for another 32 years.
In a November 12, 2002 article, the Los Angeles Times reported that a crime analyst for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department named Joe Walker was conducting genealogy research at the county registrar-recorder/county clerk’s office in Norwalk when, by chance, he came across the name of Sam Haskins.
There was enough recorded evidence, including newspaper clippings, to help Walker construct Haskins’ story and tragic death. Walker took his findings to then 92-year-old Hartsfield, a 21-year veteran of the LAFD (1940-1961), an attorney (graduating from the USC School of Law in 1955), and a college professor.
As a founding member of the Stentorians, Hartsfield was also a noted authority on the history of African American firefighters in the Los Angeles Fire Department. Never having heard the story of Haskins, Hartsfield was surprised and impressed with what Walker had uncovered concerning the fact that Haskins was indeed the first African American LAFD firefighter and the first department member to lose his life during an active incident.
Led by the Stentorians, an effort was undertaken to ensure Haskins’ achievements and sacrifice would be properly honored, beginning with a new marble headstone for his gravesite at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.
Haskins’ name is also included in the Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum in Hollywood. The Maltese cross, the firefighter’s emblem, is etched next to the name of any firefighter who died while responding to or at the scene of an active incident. As the second name on the list, Haskins is the very first firefighter with the emblem etched next to his name.
Another memorial is in the form of a permanent exhibit dedicated to Haskins at the African American Firefighter’s Museum. The museum was established in 1997 and is located at 14th street and Central, a historically black neighborhood just south of downtown, inside historic Fire Station #30, which was one of two segregated firehouses in Los Angeles and was in use from 1924 to 1955.
Finally, on February 28, 2004, a ceremony was held at Evergreen Cemetery to present a new headstone and monument dedicated to the memory of Haskins, The effort was a joint project of the Stentorians, the African American Firefighter Museum, the Los Angeles Retired Fire and Police Association, the Los Angeles Firemen’s Relief Association, and the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society.
For the second time in 109 years, a diverse group of individuals that transcended race and nationalities came together at the Boyle Heights gravesite of Sam Haskins to honor the sacrifice and bravery of “a faithful and industrious fireman.”