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Black Firefighters Museum Planned for Bronzeville Next Year

By Wendell Hutson | March 18, 2013 6:46am | Updated on March 18, 2013 11:41am

BRONZEVILLE — Morris Davis, a retired Chicago firefighter, said the average person knows little about the contributions made by blacks, let alone black firefighters, so he decided to start a museum to recognize their achievements.

"People don't know that a black man [Capt. David B. Kenyon] invented the sliding pole now" once used at all fire stations, said Morris, 81.

"Black firefighters have saved lives and gave their lives doing so, yet people seem to forget that fact," said Morris, who retired in 1992 after 37 years with the Chicago Fire Department.

The Chicago African-American Firefighter Museum will be housed in a vacant firehouse at 5349 S. Wabash Ave. At last week's City Council meeting, Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced an ordinance  that would allow the museum to develop the property with a 10-year, $1 lease.

“It is important that the city memorialize the public safety contributions of African-American firefighters ... who have protected generations of Chicagoans,” Emanuel said.

The museum will celebrate the contributions of black firefighters such as Kenyon, the chief of the city's all-black fire brigade at the time of the Great Chicago Fire. Historian Timuel Black said Kenyon, after watching a fellow firefighter slide down a wooden pole, got the idea to create a permanent pole.

A slew of inventions widely used today were created by African Americans. They include the fire extinguisher by T. Marshall in 1872; fire escape ladder by J.W. Winters in 1878; traffic light by Garrett Morgan in 1923; air conditioning unit by Frederick Jones in 1949 and the cellular phone by Henry T. Sampson in 1971.

The museum also will pay tribute to deceased black firefighters and feature fire equipment such as hoses, uniforms and gas masks.

"There will be stories told by [retired] black firefighters, fire station equipment and historical information about Bronzeville and the role blacks have played in the Fire Department," said Davis, who lives in the West Chesterfield neighborhood on the South Side.

Morris said the museum will open next year, and he hopes it becomes a tourist destination.

In 2008, Mayor Richard Daley introduced an ordinance to allow the museum to lease a vacant fire station at 6843 S. Harper Ave. for $1, but the organization never moved into it.

"This is where black history is. DuSable High School and Parker House Sausage Co. are all located here," said Ezra McCann, a 65-year-old Bronzeville resident who retired from the Fire Department in 2006 after 30 years as a firefighter.

And the museum has the support of Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd).

"When I met with former firemen Morris Davis, Ezra McCann and Albert Bragg, who are leading this effort, they were excited about the museum's possibilities for tourism and other business development," Dowell said. "What a great asset for our community as we celebrate our own."

The Fire Department often has had a contentious relationship with blacks in Chicago, McCann said.

In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that the city's Fire Department entrance exam discriminated against blacks and ordered the city to hire 111 black firefighters and pay tens of millions of dollars in settlements to other applicants.

About 18 percent of Chicago firefighters are black. The number of black firefighters has shrunken nearly 4 percent in the years since the discrimination lawsuit stemming from the 1995 entrance exam.

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the mandatory retirement age for firefighters is 63, and the maximum age to be hired as a firefighter is 37. As a result, Gregory Boggs, president of the African-American Firefighters & Paramedics League of Chicago, said most of the black applicants who took the 1995 exam were too old to be hired. Instead they received settlements.

The museum is seeking donations to help it meet its 2014 opening goal. Those interested in contributing can send donations to P.O. Box 496353, Chicago, IL 60649.