In honor of Black History Month, here are 8 things to know about the history of African-Americans in the PFD. We will host an event celebrating this legacy on Feb. 27 at 1 p.m. at Fireman’s Hall Museum, 147 N. 2nd St.
1. The first African-American to work in the Philadelphia Fire Department was Isaac Jacobs. He was hired in 1886 as a hoseman at Engine 11, but in reality, he was relegated to caring for the company’s horses.
2. In 1891, Stephen Presco became the second African-American hired by the department. Unlike Jacobs, Presco actually fought fires; he was well-respected and considered fearless. In 1907, he became the city’s first black firefighter to die in the line of duty when a fire escape collapsed during a building fire at 823 Filbert St. He was 41.
3. Peter C. Graham served as the department’s first black officer when he was promoted to lieutenant in 1931. James G. Davis made history by becoming the city’s first black battalion chief in 1953.
4. For decades, African-American firefighters could only work at the all-black companies: Engine 11 and Fire Boat #1. That changed in 1949 when 11 black firefighters were assigned to stations throughout the city. Engine 11 and Fire Boat #1 remained all-black companies (except for white officers) until 1952.
5. In 1962, PFD Lt. Samuel Singleton started the fraternal organization Club Valiants for minority firefighters. Valiants was one of several such groups that came together to create the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters in 1970.
6. Mayor Ed Rendell tapped Harold Hairston as the city’s first African-American fire commissioner in 1992. Hairston retired in 2004 after serving 40 years with the PFD.
7. The city’s first female firefighter to die in the line of duty was Joyce Craig, an African-American woman who had served in the department for 11 years. She died while responding to a house fire in 2014, and was posthumously promoted to lieutenant. She was 37.
8. Three black women are among the trailblazers who continue to work in the department:
- Fire Code Unit Lt. Diane Mercer was one of the first three women hired by the PFD in 1985.
- Engine 44 Capt. Lisa Forrest is the first black female firefighter promoted to that rank and the first woman to lead Club Valiants.
- Paramedic Crystal Yates is the first black woman promoted to the rank of chief. She now serves as assistant deputy commissioner for EMS and is the highest-ranking African-American woman in the department.