The mission of the Black Women in the Fire Service is to provide a network that supports, educates, mentors, and encourages women in the fire service. We will work to recognize, recruit and retain Black women in the fire service.
The honor of being the first known female firefighter goes to an African-American woman named Molly Williams, held under slavery by a member of Oceanus Engine Company #11 in New York City in the 1780’s. Williams made a distinguished presence in her calico dress and checked apron, and was said to be "as good a fire laddie as many of the boys." Her work was noted particularly during the blizzard of 1818. Male firefighters were scarce, but Molly took her place with the men on the dragropes and pulled the pumper to the fire through the deep snow.
The Earliest African-American Female Career Firefighters
Genois Wilson was hired as a firefighter by the Fort Wayne Fire Department in 1975. Wilson worked in fire safety education and pioneered one of the country's first fire safety programs aimed at deaf children. In June of 1976, Toni McIntosh was hired by the Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Fire Department (PFD). She was also the only female firefighter on the PFD for more than eleven years.
Carolyn Mitchell in Kansas City, Missouri, hired in January of 1977, was another early African-American female career firefighter. In an interview for an article in Ebony magazine in 1988, she reported some of the obstacles she had faced. "They tried to make it as hard as possible...They'd isolate me, wouldn't talk to me, would make up special rules for me..." In 1992, Mitchell held the rank of captain and received strong praise from her co-workers of the Kansas City Fire Department.
Several other Black women were hired in the same year as Mitchell. Harriett Saunders and Theresa Smith were two of the first three women firefighters in Detroit (MI), graduating from training in late September 1977. Detroit now has many African-American women firefighters, including District Chief Charlene Graham, who promoted in 1996.
The District of Columbia Fire Department (DCFD), which has been one of the nation's leaders in hiring Black women, employs more than 150 as firefighters and an even larger number in EMS. Beatrice Rudder, hired in the first group of women in 1977, later became a sergeant, and the first woman to be promoted in the DCFD. She retired in 2006 at the rank of Deputy Chief of the department's Risk Management Division.
Firefighter Liz Summers was one of seven Black women who joined the Atlanta Fire Bureau in 1978; she "completed her training at the very top of her class”, and retired as Battalion Chief in 2009. Also in 1978, Freda Bailey-Murray, was hired by the Rockford (Illinois) Fire Department, along with four other women. Bailey-Murray later became the first woman of color to serve as President of the Board of Trustees of Women in the Fire Service.
In June of 1979, the city of Greenville, Mississippi hired the first African-American female firefighter in the state, Laverne Sing. Carolyn Luke is currently the department’s only African-American woman on the 89-person force. Sing and another woman, both lieutenants at the time, were promoted to Captain in the fall of 1990. Also in the summer of 1979, the first African-American female firefighter, Wanda Akbar (now Wanda Butler), was hired in Jacksonville, Florida. Butler retired in 2001, after 22 years with city, and now works as a nurse. Genois Wilson, a 911 dispatcher for the City of Fort Wayne, Indiana, became the city's first female firefighter after completing fire training in 1979. After 20 years with the city, Wilson retired in 1995 and went on to work as a Probation Officer counseling juveniles.
In 1980, Christine Richie-Myers was one of first two women hired by the Oakland (California) Fire Department. She was promoted to Inspector in 1983, and later became a Lieutenant. The Oakland Fire Department currently employs more than 20 Black women. The Seattle Fire Department had an aggressive women's hiring program for several years beginning in the late 1970's, but it was not until 1980 that Seattle hired its first African-American female firefighter, Janet Beal. The second African-American woman, Michele Williams, was hired in 1984. Beal was promoted to Lieutenant in 1996, the first African-American woman to hold rank on the Seattle Fire Department.
The group of the New York City Fire Department's first women firefighters in 1982 included a number of African-American women; some of whom who are still on the job today. Several have received unit citations for their work in the field, and one, Katrina Cannon, served as president of the New York women's organization, United Women Firefighters.
Cassandra S. Sidberry was hired by the Wilmington (North Carolina) Fire Department in July of 1984, the first African-American female on the department. She was promoted to Driver/Operator in 1989, and became the WFD's first female Lieutenant in 1999. She was then promoted to Captain -- again, the department's first female -- in February of 2000. Also in 1982, Catherine Washington was hired by the St. Petersburg (Florida) Fire Department. She was named Firefighter of the Year in 1999, and a 30+-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves, attaining the rank of Master Sergeant.
The Toledo Fire Department has employed African-American female firefighters since its first women were hired in 1983. Out of more than 30 women on the job, at least ten are African-American. Firefighters Jennifer Wilson and Geraldine McCalland, along with Lieutenant Greg Fizer and Charles E. Anderson, in 1989 formed the first all-African-American crew in Toledo Fire Department history.
Notable African-American Female Firefighters in Recent Years
On July 14, 1988, Chicago firefighter Phyllis Earl responded to a fire with her ladder company. She got off the truck to get an SCBA from a side compartment; at the same time, a responding engine drove past. Just as the engine passed the truck, an axle bolt on the engine apparently broke. The engine fishtailed and slid sideways, pinning Earl between the two vehicles. The driver of the engine was unaware that anything was wrong, and continued driving, rolling Earl sideways as the engine proceeded. (The driver was later treated for shock at a local hospital.)
Earl suffered numerous crushing injuries. She went into cardiac arrest at one point and had to be resuscitated. Her injuries resulted in the loss of her spleen, a kidney, and one lung; she later received a transplanted kidney donated by her sister. Co-worker Marilyn Schriner said at the time, "I felt that if anyone could pull through such an accident, Phyllis could... She is a remarkable, determined woman." Her extensive injuries forced Earl to retire from firefighting.
An African-American woman named Jackie Jenkins was a firefighter/paramedic for the Kennedy Space Center Fire Department. Jenkins started out on the Cocoa Fire Department in her hometown in about 1987; she later went to the Space Center and became the first Black female Captain in the state -- and probably in the country -- in less than a year. She was the first woman in Florida to win the "Outstanding Young Firefighter of the Year" award from the Florida Jaycees.
Cecelia O. Salters (now Cecelia Owens-Cox) was among the first group of women hired by New York City, and in 1984 was the first woman assigned to a FDNY truck company, Ladder Co. 9 in downtown Manhattan. (It is rare for women to be assigned to truck companies in the FDNY on a permanent basis.) Cecelia married co-worker André Cox in 1990, and the couple became the first FDNY firefighters from the same firehouse to marry.
African-American Women Fire Officers
Jacqueline Jones was the first female firefighter of the Newark, New Jersey, Fire Department. Hired in 1982, Jones was promoted to Captain in 1989, one of the earliest African-American women to reach that rank. At her promotion ceremony, the mayor of Newark said, "It is a privilege to recognize our first female fire Captain... She has displayed academic excellence and a tremendous commitment to the community by putting her life on the line to save others." She retired in August of 2006.
The first woman to hold the rank of Division Chief on the Detroit Fire Department was an African-American woman, Charlene Graham. Several other African-American women have been promoted to chief-level positions in recent years, including Pat Dyas, Battalion Chief in Shreveport, Louisiana; Cynthia Brooks, Assistant Chief (Lt. Col.), in Louisville, Kentucky; and Toni Tolbert-Dixon, Deputy Chief in East Point, Georgia, to name a few.
In March of 2002, Rosemary Cloud was named Chief of the East Point, Georgia, Fire Department; the first African-American woman Fire Chief ever! Less than three years later, Debra Pryor followed when she became Chief of the Berkeley, California, Fire Department. Since then, two others have join the elite ranks as Fire Chief; Jean Frye, McComb, (MS) (former Chief), and Toni Tolbert-Dixon, City of Decatur (GA).
Black Women in the Fire Service
The International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters (IABPFF) has international, national, regional, and members of "Black Women in the Fire Service (BWFS)" to support women who are IABPFF members, in addressing their issues within the fire service industry and the community. The organization was originally established as a sub-committee in 1988 to address rising issues related to African-American firefighters. Brenda Brooks was assigned by the IABPFF’s President to chair the committee.
Brenda took a proposal to the BWFS members in Chicago in 1996 that would allow BWFS to vote on their leadership and become a stand-alone committee. It was voted on and passed by the BWFS and the membership at the convention. At the 1998 biennial convention in Seattle, Washington, the first election was held and Claudia Stevens was elected President of BWFS. Kim Peterson was elected in 2002 at the biennial convention in Buffalo, New York, and served two terms.
The organization goals include increasing the number of African-American women applicants to fire departments; investigating local problems they encounter on and off the job; enlisting community support for women; and determining the effects that training, or the lack of training, has on women. The new president of the organization is Pam Jackson elected at the 2010 biennial convention in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Although there are many more African-American women who serve as volunteer firefighters, their numbers are difficult to count and the names remain unknown except to those who work with them.
Our numbers are growing every year. With the increased visibility of those currently on the job and many outreach efforts, awareness will continue to grow among young African-American women, that firefighting and rescue work are fields that offer them great opportunities and even greater rewards.
We are a committee of the
International Association of Black Professional Firefighters (IABPFF)