The initial crop of 14 African-Americans who joined the previously segregated Arlington County Fire Department in the early 1950s knew they had something to prove – not just about themselves but about their entire race.
The view of many whites in the community was “blacks just weren’t good enough,” said Hartman Reed, who was just out of the U.S. Navy and looking for a career when opportunity knocked. He would spend the next 27 years on the force, rising to the rank of captain.
But in the early days, there was more at stake than simply holding down a job.
“Most of us really wanted to prove that we were as good as, or better than, those in the other departments,” Reed said at a celebration of those first paid firefighters of Station #8 on Halls Hill/High View Park, held May 21 in Ballston.
Reed was joined by former firefighters Julian Syphax and Carl Cooper in a roundtable discussion that drew 200 people. Thurman “Bobby” Hill and the families of the late Alfred Clark, George McNeal, Archie Syphax, James Jones, Carroll Deskins, Henry Vincent, Ervin Richardson, Jimmie Lee Terry, Wilton Hendrick and William Warrington also were honored at the ceremony, sponsored by the John M. Langston Citizens Association.
“For the lives that you saved, for every unselfish act you gave each and every one in our community, we thank you,” said Sherri Clarke, a local resident who provided rousing musical tributes at the occasion.
Clarke said that during the era of racial segregation, the firefighters at the station were a beacon to the community, especially its young people. She called the firefighters “loving, caring, very personable.”
“You let [children] know you are their friend,” she told them.
The Halls Hill/High View Park community’s roots date back 150 years, making it one of the oldest historically black neighborhoods in Northern Virginia. In 1918, finding that the white volunteer fire departments of the day wouldn’t venture into the neighborhood, residents of Halls Hill set up their own, using hand-me-down equipment.
When the fire department first agreed to hire black personnel in the early 1950s, it allowed them to serve only the Halls Hill station (today known as Fire Station #8), where professionals worked side by side with the volunteers.
Cooper noted that when the fire truck pulled out of the station and onto Lee Highway, it would slow briefly to allow volunteer firefighters from the community to hop on the back before speeding off to a call.
(Cooper spent 11 years on the force before a heart ailment caused him to move to a job in the CIA, but his residency in Arlington dates to his birth on the spot on Lee Highway where the Taco Bell sits today. )
Letters extolling the firefighters came from President Obama, Gov. McAuliffe, the County Board and members of Congress.
“There’s no better definition of a community than neighbors helping each other,” said Bob Brink, an adviser to Gov. McAuliffe who represented the Lee Highway corridor in the House of Delegates.
“I can’t think of any greater service you can give to your neighbors than protecting their lives and homes,” Brink said before reading the governor’s letter.
County Board Chairman Libby Garvey, who came toting resolutions honoring both the firefighters and the Halls Hill sesquicentennial, said reflecting on the past makes for a stronger future.
“It’s important in our history to recognize the good things and the not-so-good things we’ve had to cope with,” she said.
The original Lee Highway station was replaced by a two-bay facility in 1963. Over the past year, controversy has raged over whether to move the station to Old Dominion Drive, or raze it and replace it on the current site. A County Board-appointed task force is poised to recommend the latter option.
At the May 21 celebration, Hartman, Syphax and Cooper shared stories of a time when there was enough room behind the fire station to set up a par-3 golf course.
Hartman said the original crop of 14 black firefighters, who responded to calls in white communities as well as Halls Hill, set the tone for what would become a fully integrated force of professionals at 10 stations countywide.
“I think we did an excellent job,” he said.