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SD's African American Firefighters Broke the Color Barrier in '50s

In 1919, the first group of African Americans joined the SDFD, all assigned to one station. In 1951, a forward-looking chief named George Corser decided to end the segregation. Full Focus tells the st

In 1919, five decades before the first woman joined the San Diego Fire Department, the first group of African Americans joined the SDFD, all assigned to one station. In 1951, a forward-looking chief named George Corser decided to end the segregation. Jim Holtzman produced this report, which tells the story of Corser and the men of Station 19.

1951. Life in this country was changing. President Truman had integrated the military. Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in the major leagues. And San Diego was about to become the first city of any size in America to integrate its fire department.

It wasn't easy, but thanks to a stubborn fire chief and some special black firemen, it worked. This is their story: the men of station 19.

It is a Wednesday morning at San Diego fire station 12 at 49th and Imperial Avenue. The faces tell a story of diversity. It certainly wasn't always this way.

San Diego's fire department was organized in 1889. There were no women, no men of color, until 1919 when the city hired Tim Williams, Sandy Baker and James Cross. In 1920, Joe Smith joined them at fire station three near Balboa Park.

Ten years later, all four were transferred to Logan Heights, then a middle-class white neighborhood just south and east of downtown. The residents openly complained about what kind of role models the black men were for the white boys of the area. Tim Williams saved this newspaper article in his scrapbook.

The men were eventually sent to Station 19 on Oceanview Boulevard in Southeast San Diego. When more African-Americans were hired in the 1940s, they too were sent to station 19. It became San Diego's black fire station.

Joe Bowdan: From a kid, I always wanted to be a firefighter..even when I was a little boy. I don't know why.

When Joe Bowdan joined the fire department in 1945, young black boys could dream of fighting fires, but black men had to wait until another black fireman retired.

In 1951, San Diego fire chief George Courser decided it was time to change.

Bowdan: The chief decided, in the armed services, they integrated the services, why can't I do it here? Because these guys keep coming to get jobs.

Courser decided to hire more black men. He would not send them all to station 19.

Warren Jones: As the '50s and '60s evolved in this country, this was revolutionary that it happened here.

Chief Courser hired Ben Holman and assigned him to an all-white fire station in North Park.

Ben Holman: And he said you're going to be my Jackie Robinson of the fire department. And, uh, knowing about Jackie Robinson breaking into baseball, I understood what he meant.

Bowdan: When they sent him to this white station—station 14—the captain up there called downtown and said, "I, uh, think a mistake's been made here. We got a black guy—a black boy here." He said, "I think he's supposed to be down at 19. I don't know why you sent him up here." The chief said, "Listen if you don't want him up there, come down here and turn your badge in—that's the way it's going to be."

Charles Robinson: He was a strong leader and when he said he was going to do something, he did it. And he said if the guys didn't want to work, they could just quit.

Holman: I knew that this was a trial and I wanted it to succeed. I didn't want it to fail because of me. And so, there were some things I really overlooked. I would not cause any confrontation, you know, I would turn my back or turn my head, walk away from various conversations, but by and large, there was a lot of anxiety. But realizing what has happened and the people that were coming behind me, it was worth it.

Some black firemen from station 19 were transferred to all-white stations. They handled the hostility and isolation by doing a difficult job well. And they made Chief Courser proud.

Bowdan: But we were pretty well thought of because when we went to a fire, we went there for business boy..we'd put the fire out quick. We had a good crew.

Holman: There's no better job in my opinion. Even when I first came on the department, I was very proud to be a firefighter in San Diego.

Jones: He said he had the best firemen in the United States. And he handpicked them. And he really believed what he said..and I believe he was right. (laughs).

More African-American firemen were hired and promoted. But racism didn't simply disappear. Charles Robinson, who befriended the children in one white neighborhood he served, discovered that yellowing article in Tim Williams' scrapbook wasn't such old news after all.

Robinson: And one little girl came by the station when I wasn't there and she asked, "Where's Robinson?" And the officer on duty, uh, got all upset about that and subsequently I was transferred.

Robert Osby: Basically, you were expected to sit down and keep your mouth shut. And if you were black…uh...not be involved in anything the least bit controversial.

Robert Osby helped form Brothers United in 1972 to bring more black men to the fire department..and to help those already in the department move up.

In 1992, Osby became San Diego's fire chief. He succeeded this city's first African-American chief, John Delotch.

Osby: This generation is going to have to pick up the ball and continue to acknowledge that the struggle is not over.

In this generation, about 35 per cent of the department is people of color and women. Women like Lorraine Hutchinson, who is quick to acknowledge those who came before.

Lorraine Hutchinson: When I look back on the past and look at the Robert Osby and the John Delotches and the Joe Bowdans and, you know, all those guys, I think-and it almost brings tears to my eyes-to think of the things they had to go through. I can go in a station right now, I can have a cup of coffee with anyone that's sitting there. I can read the newspaper, I can do anything that anyone else is doing. They didn't have that luxury.

Bowdan: It makes me feel like people are beginning to realize you hire a man on his merit and on his capabilities. You ignore the color, that's not what's important. Society needs people that can do the job. I feel kind of like a pioneer. I feel like I've done some good ... I don't know.

Robinson: I personally didn't think about being a pioneer as such. I knew that we were doing something that was ... uh ... different, but I didn't really realize the tremendous magnitude that it was.

Holman: Well, I don't look at myself as a hero. I just did a job..I was a firefighter.

Bowdan: When you're fighting a fire, color means nothing.

Joe Bowdan still spends some time at old station 19. The building is owned now by Brothers United and serves as their offices. Just a block or so down Oceanview, just east of Interstate 15, there is a new number 19 and on its wall is a plaque.

It is dedicated to the men who served this community ... the men who rushed into burning buildings … who saved lives..and along the way, changed San Diego and America. The men of station 19.