Front Row L to R: A. A. King, H. Gaskins, J. G. B. Key, C. E. Gibson, R. J. Holmes, W. H. Williams, and J. R. Bush. Rear Standing L to R: J. M. Carter, C.A. Young, J. A. Briscoe, F. P. Jackson, J.W. Rouse, G.F. O’Brien, W. T. Greene, J. F. Mills, J. W. Stevenson

This post was originally published on The Washington Informer

By Ronald Hesmondhalgh

Engine Company 4 is a woefully unknown player in the history of both the Washington, D.C., fire department and racial equality in America. Created in 1919 at the request of every African American fireman in Washington, D.C. — all three of them — the company has stood for over 100 years. It served as an example of racial inclusion, a source of artistic inspiration, and as a launch point for Washington, D.C.’s first African American fire chief. It’s a story of success and growth. However, it’s a history almost completely unknown.

Beginning with the first laws governing fire control in 1803, Washington’s fire department consisted of various rival volunteer groups utilizing buckets and hand-powered apparatus. It wasn’t until July 1, 1864, that plans were approved to establish the Washington City Fire Department. The department was integrated in August of 1868 with the hiring of the first African American, John S. Brent, to Union Engine Company No. 1. By September 23, 1871, the department officially adopted an all-career structure, with seven firefighters on the payroll, three horse-drawn engine companies, and one horse-drawn ladder company for a city of approximately 76,000.

“Engine Company 4, was actually the South Washington Fire Company, back in 1870,” Battalion Chief Anthony Kelleher said. “Over a year later, they would become a part of the D.C. Fire Department.”

The South Washington Fire Company, the predecessor for Engine Company 4, was the first expansion of the Part Paid Fire Department. Even today, the engine company is sometimes referred to as “Bowen Engine Company.” The name Bowen came from the moniker of the company’s fire engine. A new steam fire engine was purchased for the newly formed company and was named in honor of then-mayor Sayles J. Bowen.

“In 1871 after the Civil War, all companies, including Bowen, became permanent fire companies. By that I mean they were fully career, no more volunteers,” Curator of the D.C. Fire and EMS Museum Mark Tennyson said. “There were some real shortages during the civil war. There didn’t seem to be too much concern about color, initially. It was more about, ‘Let’s get the firefighting job done because it’s so important and so difficult.’”

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