Firefighting and the Color Line in the Circle City

In the late 1870’s, Indianapolis’ first four African-American firefighters posed for this picture at Hose Company 9 on St. Joseph’s Street. From left to right Thomas Smith, Thomas Howard, James P.D. Graves, and Robert Braxton (click on image for larger view).

In October, 1911 the Indianapolis Board of Public Safety toured Indianapolis’ fire houses including the segregated African-American Hose Company Number 16 at 16th Street and Ashland Avenue (now Carrollton Avenue; see a Google map here). The property for what was originally the Hose Reel Company Number 9 fire house was purchased in June, 1880 for $1150. When the segregated African-American fire house was completed a year later, a visitor from the Indianapolis Leader was given a tour by the African-American firefighters, and the journalist was “completely astonished at the magnificence of the enterior [sic]. The walls are clothed with paper of elegant pattern and the floors are covered with linoleum and fine Brussels carpet. Their bed room resembles the grand parlor of some of our pollatial [sic] residences more than it does the sleeping room of [a] fireman.”

Thomas Smith’s 1909 Indianapolis Fire Department photograph (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection)

Thirty years after the Leader’s 1881 visit, one of the city’s oldest veteran fire fighters, Thomas S. Smith, was still serving in the same fire house, which had become Hose Company Number 16 in 1897. When the Public Safety officials visited in 1911, an alarm sounded and Smith demonstrated his skills driving the horse-drawn wagons. The African-American newspaper The Freeman reported that the “steeds went rushing forth at a fast clip and they were no sooner in the harness than Thomas Smith, who has been in the service for thirty-five years, and who is one of the oldest men in the fire department, was on the seat urging the horses down the street. The team almost collided with a farm wagon, but Smith managed to swerve them from the road in time to prevent a smashup. The exhibition was highly praised by the investigators.”

Thomas Smith’s body was taken to Hose Company 16 on the way to Crown Hill (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection).

A month later Smith was driving the wagon through the intersection of 16th Street and College Avenue on the morning of November 8, 1911, where the wagon carrying Smith, Thomas Howard, Clarence Miller, and Emil Rugenstein was struck by a street car. Miller and Rugenstein escaped serious injury in the street car accident and would continue to be lifelong fire fighters. Miller received recognition for his heroism during the 1913 flood and he became a Captain before his death in July 1932. Emil Rugenstein had emigrated from Germany as a three-year-old in 1889, and he had been substituting at the African-American House 16 on the November, 1911 morning when the accident occurred. He served the Indianapolis Fire Department until his retirement in 1951, and he died in 1968.

Captain Howard and Lieutenant Smith had served together since May, 1876, when they became two of Indianapolis’ first four African-American firefighters, but their careers came to an end with the 1911 streetcar collision. Thomas Howard broke his hip and was permanently disabled, retiring a year later. Thomas Smith died instantly, becoming the first African-American fire fighter to die in the line of service in Indianapolis.

At the time of their 1911 accident, Thomas Howard had served alongside Thomas Smith since 1876. Howard was disabled by the accident and retired shortly afterward (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection).

Smith and Howard had become two of the first four African-American firemen in Indianapolis in 1876. On May 20, 1876 the Indianapolis News reported that “At a meeting of the Fire board yesterday afternoon Thomas Smith, Robert Baxter, Wm. Howard and James Groves, colored, were given appointments in the department and assigned duty at the no. 9 hose reel house on St. Joe’s street.” (The newspaper only got Thomas Smith’s name correct: the other three fire fighters were Thomas Howard, Robert B. Braxton, and James P.D. Graves.) Like many more American fire departments, Indianapolis’ force was segregated along the color line from its inception. Nine days after introducing the first four African-American fire fighters to the force, Chief W.O. Sherwood segregated the Number 9 fire house by transferring the White fire fighters from the house. The Indianapolis News was skeptical about the remaining four African-American fire fighters: “This leaves the colored brigade in full possession of the St. Joe street house, and it remains to be seen whether they can properly manage matters if left to themselves.”

Many of the earliest African-American fire fighters were probably born into captivity and migrated north after the Civil War. Thomas Smith was born in Kentucky in about 1843, almost certainly as a captive, and James P.D. Graves likewise was born in Kentucky before Emancipation and was likely enslaved. Graves arrived in Indianapolis in about 1869; Smith first appeared in Indianapolis a year later in 1870, when he and a woman identified as Mary Smith were living on Bright Street. Mary may have been Mary Melvina Gavin, who Thomas married in November, 1881.

Samuel Taylor served during the Civil War as a body servant for Robert Sanford Foster, shown here in about 1863 (Civil War glass negative collection, Library of Congress).

Like Smith and Graves, Samuel Taylor had been born into captivity in Kentucky, and Taylor would eventually become an Indianapolis fire fighter in 1879. Taylor secured his freedom during the war, and around 1863 Samuel Taylor had become the personal “body servant” for the 13th Regiment Indiana Infantry’s commander Robert Sanford Foster. Foster returned to his Indianapolis home after the war, and Taylor first appeared in city records a decade later in 1876.

Three of the first four African-American firefighters were at least temporarily dismissed from their positions at some point in their careers. Fire department positions were political appointees, and virtually all of the African-American fire fighters were Republicans subject to dismissal by Democratic city officials. James P.D. Graves, for instance, lost his position in May, 1880. Braxton and Smith likewise were dismissed (Braxton in 1884 and Smith in 1899), but each contested their release and was reinstated. After he was released in 1880, Graves went on to manage a saloon on North Street for a short time after leaving the fire department, and after marrying in February 1881 he and his wife left Indianapolis for Chicago, where he died in 1892. Taylor was hired in 1879 and replaced Graves in 1880, serving until his death of consumption in 1895.

The 1887 Sanborn Insurance Company map of Hose Company Number 9, which was opened in 1881 and became Company 16 in 1897. The station was closed in 1937.

In an early March 1891 survey of city employees by party, Howard and Smith identified themselves as Republican, as did the two hosemen Sam Taylor and Jesse Ringgold. By the end of March 1891, though, Ringgold was released under pressure from Democratic council members. Ringgold would go on to serve in a segregated unit in the Spanish-American War and die in a Veteran’s Home in Ohio in 1923.

Clarence Miller survived the 1911 streetcar accident and went on to serve until his death in 1932 (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection).

The new African-American fire fighters learned their trade from scratch. In June 1876 the Indianapolis News observed that the “colored fire boys need practical drilling in laying out hose and attaching nozzle. They are quick enough in hitching up and getting out.” Smith was a driver of the horse-drawn fire carriages throughout his 35-year career, and carriage accidents added to the existing danger of fighting fires. In January 1892, for instance, the wagon Smith was driving over-turned on Meridian Street, but bruises to Smith were the most serious injuries. In May 1899, the fire carriage collided with a wagon near Capitol and 16th Street (where Thomas Smith was later killed in 1911), killing the horse that was drawing the wagon. On one of Smith’s days off in March, 1902 Thomas Howard was one of three men aboard a wagon that was hit by a train at the 16th Street crossing of the Monon railway, killing a horse but miraculously sparing the lives of the fire fighters.

A 1905 inventory of Hose Company 16 included Thomas Howard, Samuel Dorsey, Thomas Smith, John Allen, and George Wallace (Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection).

During John Allen’s life as a fire fighter he survived exceptionally unpleasant injuries while continually fighting the political vagaries of African-American employment in a White-controlled fire department. Born in Kentucky, Allen was hired in May 1889 to replace Robert Braxton. In July 1899 Allen was injured when a hose broke loose, striking him in the face and breaking his nose as he fell from a ladder and broke both arms. Six weeks later Allen returned to service but one arm remained disabled, and in February the Board of Safety dismissed Allen and refused to grant him a pension. The Indianapolis News reported that Allen “said his family was actually suffering for food, and that part of the time there was no fire in the house.” At the end of February Allen petitioned to be returned to service, and a physician stepped forward to testify that one of Allen’s broken wrists had been incorrectly set; Allen also refuted the Board of Safety’s accusation that he had been drunk during his service. The Board of Safety refused to reinstate Allen, and in June 1900 he sued the city accusing the police surgeon who had treated him of malpractice. Allen was finally reinstated to the force in October, 1901, but two weeks later on October 23, 1901 Allen was nearly crushed in a collapsing structure on Park Avenue. Allen once again recovered and returned to the force, being promoted to Lieutenant in 1912. In April 1913 Allen was injured when his wagon was struck by a car, and in January 1914 Allen was demoted from Lieutenant back to Private.

An 1898 Sanborn map view of Engine House 16, which had just been re-numbered a year before.

In July 1914 the Indianapolis News reported that “almost every man, woman and child, who has been a resident of the north side in the last twenty-three years, has known or come in touch with John Allen.” Nevertheless, Allen was suspended, ostensibly because 35-40 African Americans were “clamoring for places in the fire department,” and with an election approaching Mayor Joseph Bell hoped to extend some patronage positions to appease Democratic voters. The newspaper lamented that “old John, almost heartbroken, has been going among his friends asking for them to use their influence with Mayor Bell to save his job for him.” When Allen’s case was reviewed he was accused of meeting women in the firehouse, a charge that was refuted in a letter signed by 98 people. Allen was once more reinstated as a substitute fireman in December, 1915, and in October 1920 he fell two stories “and injured his spine and shoulder so severely that he was unconscious for some time.” Allen apparently returned to the firehouse after recuperation, but by 1923 he was no longer serving, and he died in 1926.

Robert Braxton was buried somewhere in Crown Hill’s section 35 in 1889.

Three of the city’s four original African-American firefighters Braxton (1889), Smith (1911), Howard (1921) were all buried in Crown Hill Cemetery. Robert Braxton served until his death of consumption in March, 1889; Smith died in the 1911 accident; and Thomas Howard retired after the 1911 accident and died in 1921. Both Braxton and Howard were laid to rest without markers and remain in unmarked graves today (John Allen and Clarence W. Miller are likewise in unmarked Crown Hill graves).

After Melvina Smith’s burial in 1929, Thomas Smith was moved to a resting place alongside her in Crown Hill.

Thomas Smith was originally buried in 1911 in a section reserved for people who could only afford a single lot. Smith’s widow Mary Melvina Smith died in Vancouver, British Columbia in June, 1929, where she had been staying with her son Grant Smith. Mary’s daughter Ida Smith joined her brother Grant for the train trip returning Mary to Indianapolis for burial in Crown Hill. Melvina Smith was buried in a lot that had been purchased in 1909 by Samuel J. McClure, an African-American merchant policeman who had his wife Catherine buried there in 1909; he would later be buried there as well in 1920. McClure had been appointed to the merchant police (a private security force) in July, 1881, but it is not clear how he came to share his Crown Hill lot with Melvina Smith. After her burial, in 1930 her husband Thomas was moved from his lot to rest beside her, where both of them remain today.

Thomas Smith’s service is today commemorated in the Heroes of Public Safety section of Crown Hill with this memorial.

Nearly a century after Thomas Smith’s death, in 2009 the Indianapolis Black Firefighters Association dedicated a memorial to Thomas Smith at Crown Hill. Today Smith is recognized in the cemetery’s Heroes of Public Safety section. The fire house he worked in from 1881 until it was closed as a firehouse in 1937 still stands today, and the intersection where Smith died a block away remains a busy city artery today.

 

Images

Clarence W. Miller 1909 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Emil Rugenstein 1926 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Hose Company 9 circa 1876-1880 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Indianapolis Fire Houses circa 1877 Hose Company No. 9 image Indianapolis Firefighters Museum; Manuscripts and Rare Books Division of the Indiana State Library

Gen. Robert S. Foster, Col. 13th Ind Inf From Indiana image Civil War glass negative collection (Library of Congress)

Thomas Smith 1909 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Thomas Smith Funeral 1911 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

Thomas Howard 1909 image from Indianapolis Firefighters Museum Collection

 

References

Indianapolis Fire Department

1893 History of the Indianapolis Fire Force. Baker-Randolph, Indianapolis.

1905 Roster of the Fire Force and Time of Service of Each Member.

Ca. 1912 Official Review Indianapolis Fire Department year ending Nineteen Hundred Eleven

nd Timeline 1818-1913

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