It’s late winter of 2006 and an ornate silver speaking trumpet is on offer at a prestigious New York City auction house. The engraved inscription marks it as a gift to the Good Will Engine Company, a volunteer fire company founded in Philadelphia in 1802. The hammer falls on a bid of thousands.
It’s springtime of 2020 and a piece of metal has been found in the dirt of a Charleston, South Carolina, work site. The engraved inscription marks it as a badge from the Niagara Fire Company, a volunteer fire company founded in Charleston in 1861. Some old pennies and discarded buttons are found as well.
Both objects, the valued heirloom and the forgotten metal pin, now reside at the National Museum of American History. Each tells a very different story of African American communities and their connections to firefighting in the 1800s, one in the North and the other in the South.
Detectorist Axel Macon holds the Niagara Fire Company badge moments after discovering it at a house renovation site in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 2020. Courtesy of Axel Macon
Volunteer fire companies were the norm in American cities and towns prior to the Civil War. Volunteer firefighters represented a potent swirl of masculinity, self-sacrifice, and republican virtue, securing them a heroic place in their communities. Elaborate uniforms and decorated fire engines both reflected and reinforced this special status. While they sometimes received financial assistance from local governments, such companies were largely independent, electing their officers and supplying their own equipment. Social clubs as well as civic saviors, these fire companies held fairs and balls, marched in parades, and trekked to visit fire companies in other cities. They also controlled the make-up of their membership by balloting new applicants. In Philadelphia, for instance, there were Protestant, Catholic, and Quaker fire companies; German and Irish companies; temperance companies; and even companies made up of single professions, like butchers. But Philadelphia had no African American companies.
This hand-colored lithograph depicts two Philadelphia hose companies racing headlong to a fire, vying for the honor of being first on the scene. Competition between firefighters often led to street violence and brawls between rival companies and the gangs that associated with them. “The White Turtle & The Red Crab” c.1852 (2005.0233.1010)
This was not for lack of trying. The African American community of antebellum Philadelphia was one of the largest in any Northern city, with established cultural organizations—churches, benefit societies, etc.—dating back to the late 1700s. A volunteer fire company was another form of civic engagement and recognition, and a group of young men proposed the African Fire Association in 1818, as one account put it, out of “a pure and laudable desire to be of effective service.” Regardless of intent, this effort was quashed within weeks. White firefighters objected, even threatening to quit altogether. The city had enough fire companies, they argued. Another company at a fire would decrease water pressure,