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In 1872, San Diego’s first fire engine company was formed. Forty-seven years later, Timothy Williams, Sandy Baker, and James Cross were hired as the department’s first African American firefighters, joined by Joe Smith the following year.
These men were eventually hired in 1919 as a result of pressure from the African American community in San Diego. Later, they became known as the “Men of Fire Station No.19”.
From its original construction in 1927 until 1951, all African American firefighters were made to serve out of “Old” Fire Station No. 19. They were given the most difficult tasks and faced discrimination from the community and other firefighters.
Although reinforcing segregation, “Old” Fire Station No. 19 served as a community gathering space and became a safe haven for African Americans in the city’s other emergency services departments during this time.
In 1951, Chief George Courser sent African American firefighter, BenHolman, as relief to Fire Station No. 14. There was an overall negative reaction which led Chief Courser to issue an order stating from that moment on, San Diego’s Fire Department would be integrated. Any man unwilling to cooperate would be forced to quit.
This led to more African Americans being hired and getting promoted to levels such as: Engineer, Captain, Battalion Chief, and Deputy Chief.
Although Chief Courser’s actions laid the foundation for an end to segregation, African American firefighters continued to face discrimination from their colleagues and the community.
In 1969, African American firefighters from all over the nation met in New York City to discuss their shared experiences. The next year, the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters (IABPFF) was formed. This prompted San Diego firefighters to form the 23rd official organization to join IABPFF, the Brothers’ United San Diego Firefighters, Inc.
In 1986, a new Fire Station No. 19 building opened and the “Old” was leased to Brothers’ United. In 2009, “Old” Fire Station No. 19 was designated Historical Resources Site #893 by the City of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board.
After the historic site designation, Brothers’ United members, Lawrence Gordon, Jonathan Bowens, and Ronnie Hicks established the Historic Fire Station 19 Foundation.
The Historic Fire Station 19 Foundation’s goals remain the same today: raise funds to care for their aging building and educate the public regarding the historic significance and contributions of African American firefighters in San Diego by exploring, documenting, preserving, and showcasing their stories and historical artifacts.