Charlotte Fire History Includes Its Black History

Published on February 27, 2024

Reginald T. Johnson, the City of Charlotte's first Black fire chief.

Hired in 2018, Reginald T. Johnson is the first Black fire chief for the City of Charlotte.

By: Kevin Campbell

Reggie Johnson probably never knew he would be part of Black history. Charlotte Fire Chief Reginald T. Johnson was born in Washington, DC, and raised in Maryland. He comes from a family of public service. Johnson’s father was a Vietnam veteran and a retired police officer. After what Johnson calls were some “life’s challenges”, he began looking for a career where he could serve others.

“I applied for several public safety agencies, including the DC police, but was hired by the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department in June of 1993,” Johnson said.

With no previous experience in the fire service, he was one of 24 others in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Recruit Class 83.

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 A 1993 picture of Reginald T. Johnson as a recruit for Fairfax County Fire and Rescue. Johnson is in the middle row, fourth person from the left

“Just like [in the] Charlotte Fire Department, they teach you everything you need to know, give you the equipment and get you out there and you can start serving right away,” he said. After nearly 18 years, Johnson had been promoted to battalion chief, and eventually became the assistant fire chief of Operations in Fairfax County.

During his progression, he also received his master’s degree in emergency management. But in 2018, the city of Charlotte made a historic move.

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Johnson surrounded by Charlotte Fire Deputy Chiefs, Deputy Chief Jerry Winkles (left), Deputy Chief Bo Fitzgerald (center), Deputy Chief Pete Skeris (right).

“I am Fire Chief Johnson, but I’m also the first Black fire chief here for the Charlotte Fire Department. That’s an honor in itself,” Johnson said. “What it does is it shows other people of color, other minorities, that you can achieve this rank in the fire service.”

Early in the 19th century, Charlotte was a village with commercial and manufacturing establishments necessary to sustain an agricultural and farming economy. Slave owners were requested to allow their slaves to participate in firefighting activities prior to the 1875 formation of the Charlotte Fire Department.

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The earliest documented mention of Black volunteer firefighters was in May 1873. They were eventually known as the Neptune Fire Company.

The defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery gave new opportunities for Black men to become volunteer firefighters.

“In the fire service, I stand on the shoulders of my mentors and people that have blazed the trail before we’ve gotten there. They hadn’t reached the rank of Fire Chief. A lot of them just reached, just getting on the department,” Johnson said.

Fire Chief Reggie Johnson standing in front of the Neptune pumper at Charlotte Fire headquarters.

Johnson in front of the Neptune pumper at Charlotte Fire headquarters.

Charlotte Fire didn’t hire its first Black firefighter until 1967. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the following year.

“We’re not nearly where we strive to be as a country and being accepting of all people regardless of color of skin, race, gender identification, sexual orientation,” Johnson said. “We’re a long way from being as accepting as we could be as a country. It’s really shown to be prevalent here in recent years and we still have a long way to go.”

With these challenges, Johnson sees hope in the people of Charlotte.

“The civil rights movement is not that long ago. Some people don’t sit and think about that today with some of the strife that we see in society. But I’m honored to be considered part of that Black history,” Johnson said.

The lack of diversity in fire departments across the country isn’t lost on him.

Fire Chief Reggie Johnson walks with Charlotte Fire Recruit Class 124.

Johnson walks with Charlotte Fire Recruit Class 124.

“Yes, the fire service is predominantly white male. We have made many strides as far as diversification goes, diversifying the workforce. The city of Charlotte is a diverse city. And we want to be able to provide service to a diverse community,” he said. “You must have diversity to be able to do that and be able to identify with other people’s cultures and understanding.”

The giving heart of a firefighter does come with some challenges. Johnson’s wife, Angela, has been what he calls “his chief” for nearly three decades.

A firefighter’s schedule has many long days and nights. They miss family birthdays, holidays and weekends.

“I can’t tell you the number of snowstorms, blizzards, et cetera, that my wife was home taking care of the house and the kids while I’m at work serving the community. We wouldn’t be anywhere without our wives and our families. And I’m most appreciative of my wife,” he said.

Charlotte Fire Chief Reggie Johnson with his wife, Angela when he was promoted to lieutenant in 2001.

Johnson with his wife, Angela, when he was promoted to lieutenant in 2001.

But firefighters understand upon entering this profession that they exist to serve. Every day, they risk their lives to protect our neighbors during traumatic events. After they return from an emergency call, the bay doors open to welcome them back to their firehouse. These families of firefighters are ready to roll again, and again.

Charlotte Fire Chief Reggie Johnson meets with the crew at Firehouse 1.

Fire Chief Johnson meets with the crew at Firehouse 1.

“Charlotte Fire Department is family oriented. We’re together for long hours. We pray together. We depend on each other,” Johnson said.

Just like every firefighter, Johnson is resolute in his dedication to Charlotte and to the women and men of Charlotte Fire. More than anything else, it is a firefighter’s overflowing kindness to our neighbors.

“You do see a lot of tragic events in the fire service world. I’ll say this until the day I’m gone: there’s no better feeling than helping somebody in their time of need. That time of need may be a minor injury. It could be saving somebody from a house fire. It could be bringing somebody back after a cardiac arrest. Each one of those is a different feeling that you, when you’ve a made a difference in someone’s life.”

When you walk into Johnson’s office, you see various fire memorabilia on tables and shelves. Pictures from years gone by, and a busy desk stacked with work.  There is one plaque that stands out which reads, “Forever, Friends, Family, Faith.”

A framed image that displays four hands, each holding the wrist of another arm, with text that reads, 'Forever. Friends. Family. Faith.

“I have a strong faith and realize I wouldn’t be where I am or who I am without the grace and mercy of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, without the love of my wife and family, or without the support of true friends,” Johnson said. “Fire chief is a difficult and at times a lonely position, but with strong faith and trust in Him all things are possible.”