Research compiled by: Sabrina F., Courtney S., Bri'Anne W.
Omaha has a long and proud tradition of black firefighters breaking barriers. In 1895, the first black firefighters were hired. They were very proud of their accomplishments, but they were not treated as equals. Black firefighters had to follow the laws of segregation. They were based at two different fire stations in North Omaha because that is where the black population was at that time. It was difficult for black firefighters to be promoted. This started to change in 1951 due to the use of a Civil Service exam for eligibility among applicants. Some challenges to being promoted continued through the desegregation of the Omaha Fire Department.
The Omaha Fire Department was desegregated in 1957. During that year, black firefighters from the only remaining black station, Engine Station 14, were moved to other fire stations in the city of Omaha. Then, white firefighters who had volunteered moved into Station 14. When desegregation happened, white firefighters did not accept black firefighters as equals. Black firefighters were not allowed to eat with white firefighters, sleep in the same beds, or do fire inspections on white property. These things slowly started to change over time.
In 1987, the Omaha Fire Department hired the first class of female firefighters, including the first black female firefighter Linda Brown. One big challenge that female firefighters faced were that there were not any women’s locker rooms or rest rooms at the stations. The men and women had to share restrooms for a number of years. Also, the male firefighters thought that they were too weak to take on the job and were not taken as seriously as the male firefighters. As a result of this thinking, the women had to work twice as hard.
This picture captures the first five black firefighters that were hired in North Omaha. In 1895, a prominent politician, Dr. Mathew Oliver Ricketts, requested the first five black firefighters to be hired by the city of Omaha. This was a segregated unit, Hose Company 11. New black firefighters were only hired if another black firefighter had died or retired. The need for black firefighters was significant because there were not enough firefighters in Omaha and no fire stations located in black communities. The white firefighters would not go into the black neighborhoods such as the Near North Side. The black firefighters that came onto the job were assigned to the black neighborhoods. The black firefighters could not fight the fire from the inside of a house or building if the owner was white.
(Photo courtesy of the Great Plains Black History Museum)
On August 12, 1957 desegregation was implemented in the Omaha Fire Department. This allowed black firefighters to work in other stations in Omaha instead of having all black firefighters at one of the two black fire stations. Just a few days later, the Omaha World Herald claimed the fire department was fully desegregated, with eight black firefighters transferred and only three remaining at Station 14. Though the Omaha Fire Department was desegregated, the black firefighters were not treated equally. For example, black firefighters could not eat until the white firefighters finished. Also, they could not sleep in the same beds or perform inspections on properties owned by whites. While Station 14, located on 21st and Lake, is not used as an operating fire station any more, the history of what it once was lives on. It is now the headquarters of the Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters and the Omaha Black Firefighter Phoenix Foundation.
(Pictured above is Fire Station No. 14, the last station to be desegregated)
In 1942, many white men left their jobs temporarily to fight in WWII while others retired and remained on the home front. In the Omaha Fire Department, 80 positions opened creating job opportunities for minorities. Because of a growth in the need for firefighters and more retirements, black firefighters were allowed to keep their jobs after the war, but failed to receive due promotions. In 1951, three representatives from the Omaha chapter of the NAACP confronted the Fire Commissioner, William D. Noyes, about promotions and advancement within the fire department. The city responded with the Civil Service Ordinance of 1951 which became another driving force in black firefighters being hired and promoted. Civil Service testing allowed blacks to have equal employment opportunities. (captain's uniform courtesy of The Omaha Association of Black Professional Firefighters)
The first black female firefighter was added in 1987, her name was Linda Brown. Forty new firefighters started training on August 17,1987. Five of those new firefighters were women. Those five were Elisa Nessen, Ann Thomlison, Linda Brown, Denise Riley, and Debbie Robinson. Linda Brown rose through the ranks quickly becoming the first woman in different areas of the department. In 1990, she became the first female paramedic. In 1997, she was promoted to Captain becoming the first black female to reach that rank. Captain Brown retired in 2007 as a fulfilled firefighter.
"Solution Seen on Firemen." Omaha World-Herald, July 11, 1951.
"Desegregation of Fire Department Finished." Omaha World-Herald, August 8, 1957.
Bosanek, Jim, et al. Omaha Fire Department, 1860-2010: 150th Anniversary. Evans
History Matters. “Booker T. Washington Delivers the 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech.” https://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/39/
Katznelson, Ira. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission. Patterns on the Landscape: Heritage Conservation in North Omaha. Omaha, NE: City of Omaha Planning Department, 1984.
The Omaha Black Firefighter Phoenix Foundation
This is a picture of Mel Freeman and Eli McClinton. The city of Omaha has had a proud tradition of black firefighters since 1895. (Photo courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society)