When Sam Haskins, the first African-American firefighter in 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 a LAFD pioneer, he was also briefly involved in politics and, occasionally, 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 remains of the unmarried Haskins were buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.
|A circa 1860s daguerreotype of Sam (Samuel) Haskins (1846-1895). Courtesy of the African-American Firefighters Museum, Los Angeles.|
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 also 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 “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.
|Los Angeles Herald, 12 September 1890. The term "Zouaves" came from a French army light infantry regiment and was adopted by an Illinois volunteer regiment during the Civil War.|
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 for African Americans.
The exact details leading up to Haskins’ selection to the LAFD’s reserve unit is 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 drill 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.
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 circumstances.
Join us next week for the second part of this excellent accounting of the life of Sam Haskins!