Monday, September 9, 2019

Sam Haskins (1846-1895): He Answered His Last Alarm, Part Three

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.

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.

The listing of Sam Haskins on the Fallen Firefighters Memorial at the Los Angeles Fire Department Museum in Hollywood.  Photo by Rudy Martinez.
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 to 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, he existed. Moreover, it would remain that way for another 32 years.

The memorial headstone to Haskins at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. Courtesy of the African-American Firefighter Museum, Los Angeles.
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, who was 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 grave site 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.

The reverse of the Haskins memorial tombstone listing the entities that dedicated it in February 2004.
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 in downtown, inside historic Fire Station #30, which was one of  two segregated firehouses in Los Angeles and in use from 1924 – 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 grave site of Sam Haskins to honor the sacrifice and bravery of “a faithful and industrious fireman.” 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Sam Haskins (1846-1895): He Answered His Last Alarm, Part Two

The first part of this post by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez introduced us to Samuel (Sam) Haskins, a native of Virginia who came to Los Angeles in the early 1880s and became involved in the political world of the city's small but active black community.  In June 1892, Haskins became a call man (meaning he was on-call on an as-needed basis) with the Los Angeles Fire Department and was the first black firefighter in the department's history.  Now, we pick up the story of Haskins and thank Rudy for his excellent contribution.

On Tuesday, November 19, 1895, at approximately 6:00 p.m., the alarm sounded at Los Angeles Fire Department (LAFD) Engine Company No. 2, located at 412 North Main Street [editor's note: this is now a parking lot at the historic Plaza area next to the Pico House, Merced Theater and Masonic Lodge and just north of U.S, 101], where Sam Haskins was assigned as a call-man, meaning he was on-duty as needed.

The account of Haskins' death in the Los Angeles Herald, 20 November 1895.  The accident occurred in front of the Baker Block, formerly the site of Abel Stearns' adobe house, El Palacio, on the east side of Main Street and which is now where U.S. 101 passes through downtown.  This means the engine had only proceeded a short distance south on Main before the incident took place.
Many recent accounts mistakenly have Haskins responding from the Boyle Heights station at First and Chicago Streets, which was where Engine Company #2 relocated from the Plaza. This did not happen, however, until January 1896, shortly after the new Boyle Heights station house was completed at 2127 East First, where the Hollenbeck Station of the Los Angeles Police Department is today.

Responding to the alarm, the station crew immediately took their positions on the horse-drawn carriage and rode south down Main Street.  Haskins took a standing position on a running board at the rear, next to a shovel and a box of coal, which was behind a large and heavy steam pumper that was fixed at the center of the carriage.

Coverage of the tragedy in the Los Angeles Times, 20 November 1895.  The following day, the paper issued a correction, stating that Haskins was not burned by the boiler because it was insulated.
A small coal-fed fire was always kept burning inside the burn box of the steamer’s boiler so that it could achieve enough pressure to operate the pump and draw water from a hydrant to feed the hose line.

LAFD historians surmise that Haskins' position was that of a “stoker,” a task that required strength and coordination. Hanging on to the carriage with one hand while racing down the rough-hewn streets, a stoker’s responsibility was to maintain the fire in the burn box by using his foot to close and reopen the burn box and using his free hand to add shovels of coal.

The Times' account from 21 November of Chief Moore's report to the Los Angeles Fire Department Board of Commissioners about Haskins' passing.  Note the reference to Haskins' five years of association with the department, commission comments, and that funeral expenses, which amounted to $70, were paid out of a LAFD relief fund.
Traveling no further than two blocks from the station, however, the rig might have hit a particular deep rut in the road. At this point, Haskins lost his balance and fell between the boiler and the rear wheel, which led to his body being badly mangled.

According to the Los Angeles Times edition of the next day, the 20th, after the rig came to a quick stop, the wheel had to be removed first.  This took about ten minutes and only then could Haskins be freed, with his terrible injuries clearly visible to the growing crowd of onlookers. He was taken back to the station, where, after a few agonizing minutes, he died.

Reporting on the coroner's inquest from the Times, 22 November 1895.  See the end where it was stated that blacks and whites in large numbers went to pay tribute to Haskins.
Most of the city’s newspapers reported the story about this tragic event that next day. While highlighting the details of the agonizing manner of his death, these accounts described Haskins as the “colored politician” and the “the Herculean colored fireman,” noting that he “had many friends among the white as well as the colored population.”

One newspaper even recalled the time Haskins saved the life of police officer Valencia [see the first part of this post from last week.] Poignantly, LAFD Chief Walter S. Moore simply said, “The deceased was more than five years past connected with the department and was a faithful and industrious fireman.” [note the reference here to Haskins' association with the LAFD going back to at least 1890, though his assignment as a call man was two years after that.]

The brief account of Haskins' funeral in the Herald, 23 November 1895.
Haskins was buried in the segregated area of Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights on November 22. Marching to the cemetery from downtown, the funeral cortege, led by a band, was attended by both the chief and assistant chief of the LAFD, and a detail of thirty full-time firemen.

The Times reported that there were “profuse floral offerings, including a wreath from the Fire Commissioners and a star from the police department, with the services conducted by Rev. John A. B. Wilson, pastor of the First Methodist Church.” With no mention of family members, Haskins was simply described as a “bachelor” or “unmarried.”  His grave site, though, was left unmarked.

Coverage from the Times' edition of 23 November of the funeral ceremony, including a list of pallbearers.  Note the reference to pallbearer George Warner as "formerly a slave in company with the deceased in Virginia."
The third part of this very interesting post on a pioneering figure in the early Los Angeles black community and the Los Angeles Fire Department will conclude next week, so be sure to check back then.