When it comes to hiring Black people, the City of Omaha has a history of tokenism and half-trying. The Omaha Fire Department is no exception, and history shows that while its quick to celebrate any milestones along the way, any attempts to promote African American firefighters have been through political pressure or legal obligations. Following is a history of Black firefighters in Omaha.
Adam’s Note: Before you read this, it is important to know that the location of engine houses, aka fire stations, has changed but they have used the same numbers. Also, I’ve found a LOT of errors in past research done on Omaha’s Black firefighters, and it is only with humility that I present my research here that contradicts some previous reports. Thanks for reading, and please share your thoughts in the comments section!
Omaha’s First Half Century
Established in 1860, news stories from the earliest times in Omaha talk about how firefighters would not go to the homes of Black people to fight fires. These tales kept on through the 1880s, with stories of how an African American’s house would burn down while the firefighters saved the white home next door. Before the 1880s, African American firefighters were exceptionally rare across the country. In 1887, the National Council of the Order of American Firemen struck a clause from their organization that banned Black firemen, allowing them to join for the first time.
The City of Omaha didn’t add African Americans to the fire department out of a sense of justice or obligation, or even from the leadership of that national organization. Instead, they were responding to years of social and political pressure. The Omaha World-Herald printed a letter to the editor in 1889 that said,
“I think the police and fire commissioners should organize a first class colored fire company commanded by a colored captain and placed under the suprevision of Chief Gallaghan. I recommend the following members: Mr. Ruggs, Mr. Tailor, Mr. Grant, Mr. B. Matson, G. Jackson, Mr. Givens, Mr. Dishman, Mr. Catern, Mr. Atchinson, and Mr. Sampson. Yours truly, Jas. M.B.B.”—“A Colored Fire Company,” Omaha Daily Herald, April 18, 1889.
That is why state legislator Dr. Matthew Ricketts called on the City of Omaha to create an African American fire crew. In 1895, in response to Ricketts’ advocacy, an all-Black hose company was created to fight fires in Black homes. The segregated crew of Company 12 served the community for decades. These are the first known Black firemen in the City of Omaha were brought on board in 1895:
- Captain Samuel G. Earnest (or Ernest)
- Lieutenant Joseph R. Henderson
- Scott Jackson
- Everett W. Watts
- Harry W. Black (reservist)
- Plumer Walker (reservist)
The company was assigned to Fire House #5, which was then located at South 27th and Jones Street. The white firefighters who were assigned there were reassigned to other houses, as the Black firefighters worked alone and ostracized from the rest of the department. Other early African American firefighters in Omaha included Captain Scott Irving, Jason D. Hardin, Frank Johnson, John Taylor, Woodson Porter, and Lewis Selby.
The Black firefighters were scorned from the start of their service, and weeks after they began the department chief had to defend them to the media. “‘Give the colored company a chance,’ said Chief Redell upon being asked about a mistake made by the firemen of house No. 5 Tuesday afternoon,” blared the March 6, 1895 edition of the Omaha World-Herald. “…he is of the opinion that this being the first mistake made by the colored company it is doing as well as a white company would have done under like circumstances.” This derision and defensiveness stayed the course of things for a long time. When the probation period of two months was over, 33 businessmen in the area surrounding the new Black fire house asked the chief to remove the Black firefighters and replace them with the white firefighters who worked there before.
Black firefighters in Omaha would stay segregated for 62 years. They frequently fought more fires than their peers and were often understaffed, poorly supplied and meagerly supported. However, their dedication and excellence often drew praise from the community despite the challenges. For decades, the fire department only hired new Black firefighters if another African American firefighter retired or died.
At the same time, for the first century of Omaha’s history, it was common for large companies to employ private firefighters to protect their property and goods. The railroads, large downtown factories, and the meatpacking plants all had private firefighters. In 1893, the Cudahy Packing Plant in South Omaha had an African American firefighter on duty named William Mitchell. He is the first known Black firefighter in Nebraska history.
Captain Earnest of Company 12 made waves in 1897 when he used profane language and “some foul epithets” to describe the fire chief and assistant chief, as well as the mayor. But the controversy was stoked when his coworker, James D. Hardin, testified against him in the case while his coworkers wouldn’t talk. Earnest was suspended without pay for 30 days. Later that year, Earnest was fired. That same year, Hardin’s sister filed charges against him for battery and he was fired from the fire department. In 1896, Scott Jackson (1855-1914) was a witness in a trial of a white firefighter, and the next year he was fired for profanity.
In 1903, the Omaha Bee told the story of Jackson’s firing in a feature on the Omaha Fire Department.
“The fireman says he enjoys the excitement of the fire. He lives in it and he likes to make the run at a record-breaking pace. This was true of one Omaha fireman, who finally had to be discharged because he was so reckless that his pace would soon have depopulated the department and smashed up all the machinery. This was Scott Jackson, an oldtime colored fireman, who will be remembered as long as time. Scott was the driver of a heavy truck. It was his practice to smash a record and usually a truck at every fire. Often he arrived at a fire, cool and collected, the only occupant of his truck, the others having been scattered along the way. He had been cautioned again and again by his chief, but Scott heeded not. He liked to stir the breezes. His excuse for spilling firemen was that he couldn’t watch the “horses and the n——, too.” But Scott’s downfall finally came out one morning. He drove out of the barn on Twenty-seventh street, near Leavenworth, turned the corner onto St. Mary’s avenue on two wheels and then gave the team the rein they didn’t have, and was gone. Those on the wagon yelled “Man overboard,” but Scott was in a hurry. Then another man hit the pavement, and still Scott kept going. All down St. Mary’s avenue Scott scattered firemen, and finally went himself, but not until he turned another corner, and over went the wagon… The records don’t show that Scott was fired for recklessness. They read that Scott used profane language around the fire barn.”—“Daily life of firemen,” The Omaha Bee, July 12, 1903
Throughout the 20th Century
I haven’t figured out exactly what happened after that point, but I do know that the fire house at North 30th and Spaulding was segregated by 1909.
The African American community of Omaha continued supporting its firefighters. For instance, before his notorious match in 1910, African American boxing superstar Jack Johnson was given a long “auto tour” of Omaha by crime bosses Billy Crutchfield and Jack Broomfield, including a visit to the segregated station called Fire House #15 at North 30th and Spaulding “where Captain Scott Irving of the ‘Number Elevens’ will put his men on dress parade.'”
The Black fire companies were written up in the newspaper pretty frequently for their supposed indiscretions. Between 1906 and 1911, the station at North 30th and Spaulding was cited repeatedly. In 1911, African American leaders John Grant Pegg, Vic Walker and Rev. John Albert Williams protested the demotion of Black fire patrol captains by showing up to a fire commission meeting with 30 people. Advocating for training for the officers at the station, they made an agreement with the commission that stated, among other things, “Members of a fire company should not be treated as kindergarten pupils after being in service sixteen years. We believe that the change will result in the making of a good fire company.” Changes were made. However, white people continued to deny these and other African American firefighters from entering their homes in activities other than fires, and the rest of the Omaha Fire Department stayed racist.
In 1919, there are signs of the fire department fracturing under the pressure of white supremacy and the city’s crime boss. The lynching of Will Brown and rioting that happened in September that year marked a profound failure of the Omaha Fire Department. However, what happened afterwards with the white flight and redlining had long lasting impacts on the department that last through to today. One of the immediate impacts is that the fire station at North 20th and Lake Streets became home to an African American company, and the fire house at South 27th and Jones stopped being Black and became white again.
The next era in Omaha history was especially dangerous for Black firefighters. In 1933, the NAACP uncovered a plot in Mississippi where white men were systematically lynching African American firefighters to earn paid bounties. In Omaha, the KKK was active and threatening Black residents in North Omaha, including a former state senator. At the same time, labor movements nationwide were pushing for better pay, promotions and hours for white firefighters. Becoming vocal about the racism affecting Black firefighters in Omaha didn’t seem plausible. I have found that signs of dissatisfaction among Black firefighters in Omaha have been hard to find in newspapers from the era. However, the April 10, 1937 edition of The Omaha Guide included the cryptic ad shown below that might be evidence of labor organizing among Black firefighters in Omaha.
Change was coming though. After hiring its first African American firefighters 45 years before, in 1940 when one of the Black firefighters was moved from the Black stations to the Bureau of Fire Prevention and Inspection. In 1951, the City instituted a civil service exam to promote more equitable hiring instead of the “old boys network” that was in effect for the previous 90-plus years.
In 1928, the segregated fire company at North 30th and Bedford was moved to the station on North 16th between Cuming and Nicholas. That building still stands intact today.
A 1955 article in the Omaha Star questioned the validity of the recently-new knowledge-based exam to enter the force after finding that Black firefighters weren’t being hired into the force or promoted up the ladder until other African Americans left the force, either through retirement or otherwise. They said this was the regular course of activities, and that it needed to be changed. The Omaha City Council eschewed making those changes though, and left it up to the Fire Commissioner to choose whatever hiring process they wanted to.
The same article said that that year there was an African American lieutenant serving on the Eppley Airfield Fire Department.
The paper held the feet of the department to the fire that year, openly demanding better hiring and promotion practices and shining light on leaderships’ misgivings. White supremacy reigned supreme when Black firefighters who were promised promotions didn’t get them, and leadership claimed it wasn’t because of exams. When the newspaper showed they did pass the exams, leadership blasted the newspaper for misquoting. The tit-for-tat continued, with new promises made.
After the Omaha Star exposé that year, the Omaha City Council and the Urban League met together to discuss the segregated fire department, with much of the conversation focused on the all-Black station at North 20th and Lake Streets.
In 1957, Jim Crow segregation among the stations ended in the Omaha Fire Department. To integrate, the Black firefighters in North Omaha were reassigned to stations across the city, while some white firefighters volunteered to move into Station 14. For years after, many white firefighters did not accept Black firefighters as equals. Not allowed to eat with white firefighters, sleep in the same beds, or do fire inspections on white property, African American firefighters stayed focused on their duties and struggled silently.
After joining the Omaha Fire Department in 1960, Herbert Davis (1936-1998) became Nebraska’s first African American Battalion Chief.
William H. “Bill” Johnson was hired by the Omaha Fire Department the next year in 1961. In a 2014 interview, Johnson recalled his early station captain explaining the dining rules. He said, “When the white firefighters sit together for lunch, you’ll have to wait… You can’t eat with the other men, so go outside and get yourself something to eat, then you can eat in the kitchen when they’re done.” Throughout his career, Johnson became the first African American in several roles throughout the department, including the first Black person in the Training Bureau and the first elected to the executive board of the firefighters union. In 1980, he became the second Black firefighter to become Battalion Chief, and in 1990, he was the first to be promoted to assistant fire chief. He was acting fire chief before he retired in 1999.
According to an Omaha World-Herald interview with him, Black firefighter Eli McClinton was sent to Engine Company 17 at North 50th and Underwood Avenue. When he got there, “the captain told me that there was a store across the street where I could buy some food. But he said the guys had voted and they didn’t want me eating meals with them.” McClinton was not allowed to participate in routine Dundee home inspections. “I wasn’t allowed to go in white folks’ houses unless there was a fire,” he was quoted as saying in 2007. McClinton retired in 1981, and later said “I liked the job, but I never experienced discrimination as much as I did then.”
The Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters was established in 1974. According to the World-Herald, the nonprofit was started to help African Americans become firefighters in the Omaha Fire Department, and to help current Black firefighters with problems at work. The organization quickly became synonymous with modern Civil Rights struggles within the department, along with their efforts to recruit and be active in the community.
In 1987, Linda Brown became the first African American female firefighter in the Omaha Fire Department. In 1990, she became the first female paramedic, and in 1997, she was promoted to Captain. Along the way, she was the first Black female in many positions. She retired in 2007.
The Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters bought old Station 14 from the City of Omaha in 1999. Renaming it the Davis Community Complex in honor of Herbie Davis, the first African American battalion chief, it was dedicated in 2000 with a museum and reception hall. It continues serving as the home of the association in 2023.
In the 21st Century
The City of Omaha adopted a progressive policy allowing the fire department to favor women and people of color in the hiring process in 2002. However, that shortly after when two white firefighters won a lawsuit against the City for undue bias against them in the promotion process.
That same year, 2002, then-Captain Linda Brown testified in support of the affirmative action plan. However, soon after she filed a complaint with the city saying she’d been jumped and cursed at by two white male firefighters at her station. She said they attacked her because of her support for the policy. They were eventually were eventually suspended without pay.
In 2008, a commemorative plaque celebrating the Omaha Fire Department’s 50th anniversary of its desegregation was hung at the Fire Department headquarters at 1516 Jackson Street. According to the Omaha Star in 2008, the Omaha Black Firefighters Association and the Herbert L. Davis foundation presented a history of the city’s Black firefighters called “Courage Under Fire” with funding from the Nebraska Humanities Council. Focused on Civil Rights, the display included 45 vintage pics from 1895 and later, interviews of Black firefighters, and contributions African Americans have made to firefighting and fire safety. It was displayed at the former Love’s Jazz and Arts Center.
A 2015 newspaper article reported that the department’s racial breakdown was as 80.1% white and 8.1% African American. The next year, 88.5% were white and 5.3% were African American. At the same time, Omaha’s population was 68.2% white and 12.8% Black.
In 2016, a battalion chief and former acting fire chief of the Omaha Fire Department named Joe Salcedo shared a Facebook post saying President Barack Obama and members of the Black Lives Matter movement were “cop-hating terrorists.” Placed on paid administrative leave, Salcedo kept his job as the battalion chief in charge of training.
This is a c. 1910 pic and a 2018 pic of the SAME BUILDING located at 2128 Lake Street. It is the former Omaha Fire Department Station 14 and is now home to the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters.
The City of Omaha Fire Department in still struggling with recruiting, hiring and retaining African American firefighters in 2023. Bill Johnson, the former acting fire chief, said in a 2016 interview that more Black firefighters need to be in administrative leadership throughout the department instead of being hired for fire-suppression capacities.
In 2005, the World-Herald interviewed McClinton who said that although he loved fighting fires, he hasn’t been able to return to a fire station because of the memories of racism he endured during integration. “I served 34 years, 7 months and 16 days, but I still can’t forget what they did to us,” he said.
In 2019, the Omaha World-Herald reported that fire department was 4.5% Black, employing 36 African Americans, including one woman.
In March 2023, a judge will hear a case involving Black female firefighter Jane Crudup, who as of 2021 was one of only two black women in a department of 667 firefighters. In her case against the City of Omaha, she alleges to have experienced discrimination within the fire department in many ways. The fifth Black female firefighter in the department’s history, Crudup found a her helmet and firefighting coat had been hoisted up the flagpole “simulating a hanging or public lynching” of her. Additionally, she alleges there were many other racist acts that affected her adversely. The City attorney concurred to an effect, saying “at first blush appear to be discriminatory in nature,” but ultimately chalked it up to regular hazing. Additionally, in 2020 the mayor told her Labor Relations director, “please investigate this. We cannot allow this to happen,” and later the fire chief said in a deposition that the act was “in poor taste.” Ultimately though, in late 2022 the City asked for the case to be dismissed for a lack of evidence.
In light of the Crudup case, another complaint arose against the City in 2021 involving firefighter Sheena Glover. Alleging she was passed over for a promotion because she supported Crudup’s case, many African American leaders in Omaha signed a letter of support. The same signers called out the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters for not proactively supporting Crudup and Glover in their complaints. In late 2022 Glover graduated from the Omaha Police Academy, and in January 2023 she became the first-ever African American female fire captain in Omaha.
Today in 2023, the City of Omaha does not mention Black firefighters in the official history of the Omaha Fire Department. There are ongoing complaints and lawsuits related to racism against African Americans and the department from firefighters and throughout the community. And the City still has major disparities in employing Black firefighters.
Reflective of the Omaha city government’s failure to acknowledge white supremacy and disavowing of the moral and ethical high ground that African Americans have with regards to justice, equity, inclusion and democracy, little looks like it will change soon.
However, the African American women and men who have served in the department deserve to be celebrated and their history must be told. Follow the Omaha Black Firefighters Association Facebook page to stay in touch with what’s happening, and celebrate firefighters today.
Timeline of African American Firefighters in Omaha
- 1860: Omaha Fire Department established
- 1895: Fire Black firefighters hired
- 1895: First Black company established and located at first segregated facility, Fire House #12 at South 27th and Jones
- est1906: The Black company at South 27th and Jones is closed
- est1909: Second segregated facility and African American company established, Fire House #15 at North 30th and Spaulding
- 1919: Third segregated facility and African American company established, Fire House #14 at North 20th and Lake
- 1928: The segregated company at North 30th and Sprague was moved to North 16th and Nicholas and it became a segregated facility
- 1951: The City of Omaha ended the informal hiring practices that supposedly led to discrimination in hiring by instituting a civil rights exam
- 1957: After pressure from civil rights leaders and the Black media, the Omaha Fire Department integrated its stations
- 1960: Herbert Davis became Omaha’s first African American Battalion Chief
- 1974: The Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters was established
- 1987: Linda Brown became the first African American female firefighter in the Omaha Fire Department
- 2000: Old station 14, a formerly segregated facility, became headquarters of the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters
- 2002: Captain Linda Brown testified in support of an affirmative action program for hiring Black firefighters into the department. Two white male colleagues jump her in her station, later getting suspended for their harassment.
- 2008: The department celebrated 50 years of integration
- 2016: Former acting fire chief Bill Johnson said in an interview that more Black firefighters need to be in administrative leadership throughout the department instead of being hired for fire-suppression capacities
- 2023: Sheena Glover became the first Black female captain in the department
You Might Like…
- A History of African American Policemen in Omaha
- A History of African American Firsts in Omaha
- Black History in Omaha
MY ARTICLES RELATED TO THE GOVERNMENT OF OMAHA
Streets | Schools | Parks | Public Housing | Police | Firefighters | Eppley Airfield | Streetcars | Public Library
RELATED: CCC Camp | North Freeway
MY ARTICLES ABOUT CIVIL RIGHTS IN OMAHA
General: History of Racism | Timeline of Racism
Events: Juneteenth | Malcolm X Day | Congress of White and Colored Americans | George Smith Lynching | Will Brown Lynching | North Omaha Riots | Vivian Strong Murder | Jack Johnson Riot
Issues: African American Firsts in Omaha | Police Brutality | North Omaha African American Legislators | North Omaha Community Leaders | Segregated Schools | Segregated Hospitals | Segregated Hotels | Segregated Sports | Segregated Businesses | Segregated Churches | Redlining | African American Police | African American Firefighters | Lead Poisoning
People: Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams | Edwin Overall | Harrison J. Pinkett | Vic Walker | Joseph Carr | Rev. Russel Taylor | Dr. Craig Morris | Mildred Brown | Dr. John Singleton | Ernie Chambers | Malcolm X
Organizations: Omaha Colored Commercial Club | Omaha NAACP | Omaha Urban League | 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights) | DePorres Club | Omaha Black Panthers | City Interracial Committee | Providence Hospital | American Legion | Elks Club | Prince Hall Masons | BANTU
Related: Black History | African American Firsts | A Time for Burning
- Omaha Black Firefighters Association Facebook page
- “African American Firefighters” by the Making Invisible Histories Visible project of Omaha Public Schools in 2012
- “More Than a Century of African American Firefighters in Omaha” at Clio.com.
- “Omaha Fire Department History” City of Omaha official page
- “History of Omaha black firefighters on display” by Robyn Murray for KVNO News on 2/1/2012
- “Then the burning began: Omaha, riots, and the growth of black radicalism, 1966-1969” by Ashley M. Howard for the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2006
- “Black firefighter sues city of Omaha over discrimination allegations,” KETV (2019).