To celebrate the 125th anniversary of the Camden Fire Department, a very limited edition history was published in 1994. The fire fighters of Camden have served the city well, often with less than adequate staffing and equipment, and have compiled an admirable record not only during the years covered in the abovementioned book, but in the years since. I doubt that anywhere in the United States have so few done so much for so many with so little.
That being said, I believe that the story of the fire fighters in Camden deserves being told to a much wider audience that the original limited edition book could ever hope to reach, so it will presented here and on other web-pages within the www.dvrbs.com website.
Please contact me with any comments, questions, or corrections.... and I'm always happy to add further information about the people and event described here. Books have limited space. This website has unlimited space!
|Camden Fire Department 1869-1994|
The Legacy of Black Fire Fighters in the City of Camden
For over seventy-five years, the contribution and legacy of black Fire Fighters in the City of Camden has served to enrich the proud history of the Camden Fire Department.
While Department records fail to singularly identify the first black member to enter the ranks of the Uniformed Force, the year 1920 recorded the appointment of six black Fire Fighters. Firemen Walter Carter, Charles Cooke, Leroy Hatchett, George Johnson, Roscoe Tribbett, and Benjamin Walters Sr. were assigned to Engine Company 1 at South 4th and Pine Street, South Camden. The following year three additional members in Firemen Byron Davis, Alfred Green, and Louis Stevens were also appointed and assigned to Engine Company 1.
From 1920 until as recently as the sixties, the Camden Fire Department maintained an official policy of segregated firehouses. This practice not unlike similar policies in other cities, fostered different views both positive and negative within the organization. While many black members rightfully considered the practice a personal stigma, such all black units as Camden's Engine 1 comprised entirely of black Fire Fighters commanded by black Officers established themselves as bastions of professional pride. Indeed Engine Company 1 as the first segregated fire company and later with Engine Company 8 and Ladder Company 2, the legacy and professional contribution of black Fire Fighters were clearly focused within the operation of these units.
In March 1947, Fireman Theodore L. Primas was appointed to the Uniformed Force as a member of Engine Company 1. Fireman Primas would hone his skills while working with such extraordinary members as James Clinton; Jesthroe Hunt; and Eugene "the Champ" Alston who spent his entire thirty year career at Engine 1 on Pine Street. As an industrious individual, Fireman Primas would apply himself and rise through the ranks of the Department from Captain to Battalion Chief, to Deputy Chief, and finally as the first black Chief of Department. Chief Primas would further distinguish both himself and the Department in becoming an Attorney at Law during his tenure in the ranks.
In 1948 Fireman Raymond Amos was the first black member promoted to the rank of Captain, followed some years later in 1954 by Captain Jesse Jones. Both members remained Officers at Engine 1. Captain Amos would later request a transfer to Engine Company 8, South Camden but his Battalion Chief would not approve the transfer because of his high regard for the Captain's management skills and the efficient standing of the company. Throughout the late forties and early fifties an additional number of black members would enter the Department who would become first and second generation Camden Fire Fighters including such stalwarts as Sam Fisher and Benny Walters. Fireman Fisher would be followed into the Department by two sons; and Benny Walters, the son of a founding black member would earn his reputation as the premiere tillerman and veteran member of Ladder Company 2.
In the ensuing years the black membership continued to distinguish itself among many other contributions to the Department. Fireman Al Greene would become President of IAFF Local #788; and Jesthroe Hunt would remain a longstanding executive board member of the Relief Association. In 1966 the Department would abandoned the long-standing practice of segregation and would move to integrate firehouses citywide. In 1969 the black membership would incorporate the Brotherhood of United Fire Fighters (BU.F.F.) organization as a member of the I.A.B.P.F.F. - the international association of black professional Fire Fighters with chapters in virtually every major city of America.
In recent years the ranks of the black membership have grown to comprise some 20% of the Uniformed Force. With increasing frequency black Fire Fighters continue to ascend the ranks of Fire Officer and Fire Inspector alike. In contrast to the early years, the Department has seen many changes affecting the career of all Fire Fighters. In a recent interview with Captain Raymond Amos who at age 90 is the oldest surviving black member of the Department, Captain Amos clearly recalls the early years before the advent of Civil Service when politics was the sole basis for meaningful employment and in particular the principal means for entrance into the Department.
Captain Amos vividly recalled his role as the acting Company Officer of Engine 1 responding second due to the great Hollingshead Fire. Also during the week before Christmas 1959 while Engine Company 1 was operating at a Second Alarm for row frame buildings in the 400 block of Mechanic Street South Camden, a major collapse trapped Captain Amos and Fireman George Dixon under tons of debris. The Captain's right leg was somehow wedged against his chest in a contortionist position. The Captain and Fireman Dixon were trapped for over two hours while Amos suffered a collapsed lung and cracked vertebrae. Fireman Gus Johnson also of Engine 1 suffered severe back injuries while attempting to lift and shore debris to free his Officer and brother member. Shortly before his retirement in 1963, Captain Amos also recalled his number one position on the promotional list for Battalion Chief and the City's failure to appoint him.
As the Department embarks upon it's second 125 years of service, the legacy of black Fire Fighters in the City of Camden will certainly continue to advance, borne by current and future generations of members. The history of the black Camden Fire Fighter is but one chapter among volumes of historical information revealing an extraordinary Fire Department with a glorious past.
September 1954- Roll Call at the housewatch desk of Engine Company 1 's old quarters, South 4th & Pine Streets, South Camden on the occasion of Fireman Charlie Cook's retirement following his last tour of duty. From left: Firemen Andrew Robinson, Eugene Alston, Theodore Primas, Charles Davis, Captain Jesse Jones presenting wrist watch, Firemen Jesthroe Hunt, Samuel Fisher, Charles Cook, Orville Goldsboro, Captain Raymond Amos, Fireman Alfred Greene.