CALUMET HEIGHTS — For the last five years, a close group of retired black firefighters has met for lunch to discuss the "good old days" when they fought fires side by side.
They also get together to raise money for good causes.
This month, the 30 former firefighters gathered at Campbell's Caribbean Cuisine, 1225 E. 87th St., where they raised $200 through raffle tickets and donations to contribute to the first Chicago African-American Firefighters Museum on the site of a former fire station at 5349 S. Wabash Ave.
"The Chicago African-American Firefighters Museum needs to move from a dream to reality, and we hope to help make that happen," said Armel Peel, a 61-year-old Chatham resident who retired after 30 years as a firefighter. "When we all worked together, we had a close relationship, and now that we are retired, we want to continue that friendship."
Ezra McCann, 65, remembered trying to recruit black female firefighters to the department 30 years ago.
"If you think it was hard to join the Chicago Fire Department as a black man, try being a black woman," McCann recalled.
Elaine Hamlet, a 63-year-old South Shore resident who retired as a firefighter last year, agreed.
"Ezra had me fill out an application on my lunch break, but I thought he was playing when he said he wanted me to join," said Hamlet, who spent 19 years with the Fire Department. "I had worked 25 years in the banking industry before I left to become a firefighter at age 43."
In 1993, when Hamlet joined the Fire Department, there was no age restriction, she said. Today, the cut-off age to join the department as a firefighter is 37, said Larry Langford, a spokesman for the Fire Department.
The black firefighters museum is important, said Larry Jackson, 79, "because there are stories that can only be told by black firemen."
The former Fire Department deputy district chief added that he began his career working in Bronzeville.
"I remember going on 30 runs a day. We were being called to put out fires around 47th and Cottage Grove at a time when the [street gang] Blackstone Rangers were burning up vacant buildings, protesting the city trying to buy up all the vacant land in an area they considered their own," Jackson said. "I started in 1962, and while being a fireman was a respectable profession, whites did not respect us. That's why we need our own museum, so we can tell our own stories."
The Chicago African-American Firefighters Museum is expected to open next year, McCann said.
"There is a board of directors meeting at the firehouse [Wednesday] to discuss fundraising and other details about the museum," McCann said. "The museum is on schedule to open next year, and I can't wait."