Black Firefighters' History is Long, Proud Journey

Published on February 14, 2024

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Charlotte Firefighter Davon Hood suited up as Col. Taylor to give an oratorical narrative of the Neptune pumper.

By Kevin Campbell 

Before Charlotte was chartered, Black firefighters helped secure the safety and security of family homes and businesses from the devastation of fire.

Black firefighters, known as the Neptunes, were steadfast in their resolve to keep the community safe.

Early in the 19th century Charlotte was a bustling village with all the commercial and manufacturing establishments necessary to sustain an agricultural and farming economy. 

Charlotte covered an area a bit over 1.5 square miles and was certainly large enough that bucket brigades were inadequate for fire protection.

Slave owners were requested to allow their slaves to participate in firefighting activities prior to the 1875 formation of the Charlotte Fire Department. When the fire bell hung on the square at Trade and Tryon Streets, volunteers and slaves would assemble at the square to find out where the fire was and then run to its location while others would go to the station, located at North Church and West Fifth streets, to get the hand pump apparatus and pull it to the fire.

A great deal of coordination and commitment required to operate fire engines led to the creation of volunteer fire companies in the 18th and early 19th centuries. 

Charlotte was among the many towns that incorporated volunteer fire companies and supplied them with publicly owned fire engines, hoses, hooks, ladders, and other essential equipment. There were several volunteer fire companies operating in Charlotte by September 1835, but before the Civil War there were no African American firefighters in Charlotte or elsewhere in the South. 

The defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery gave new opportunities for Black men, including the chance to become volunteer firefighters. The earliest documented mention of Black volunteer firefighters was in May 1873 when the Charlotte Observer reported that the “Yellow Jacket (colored) Fire Company of Charlotte” was journeying to Columbia, South Carolina to participate in a fireman's festival.

By all known accounts, many African Americans participated in all fire companies and through their continued efforts, two African American fire companies were formed, the Yellow Jackets, and the Dreadnaughts.

The City of Charlotte provided supplies, facilities, and equipment to the Yellow Jacket Fire Company, just as it did for the white firefighters, and the city designated the hand-pumper it had purchased in 1857 as the engine for the African Americans to use. Nicknamed “Crazy Hannah,” the apparatus had a reputation of being unreliable, but the Yellow Jackets put it to good use.

On April 20, 1875, the Charlotte News (now the Charlotte Observer) singled out the African American firemen for special praise.

“Few, probably none of the members own any real estate or houses of their own,” the newspaper declared, “yet like good citizens they do all in their power to save the houses of others.”

The stellar standing the African American firemen enjoyed in the community was probably an important consideration in prompting the city to acquire a more reliable fire engine for the Yellow Jackets. The city purchased a used hand-pump to be shipped from New York City in August 1875 for testing by the Black firefighters of Charlotte. Manufactured in Rhode Island, and placed in service in New Jersey in 1861, the engine was designed to shoot water a distance of 200 feet. 

When the engine arrived, the African American firefighters of Charlotte changed the name of their volunteer fire company from Yellow Jacket to Neptune No. 3. The volunteer firemen who had operated the hand-pumper in New Jersey had called their company “Neptune No. 2.”

 Neptune hand-pumper

On May 20, 1875, the Charlotte Fire Department was formed and four firefighting units were chosen by the Board of Aldermen to comprise the Charlotte Fire Department.

The Neptunes were located at 107 West 6th Street, present day about the 100 block of West 6th St. Being a firefighter offered Black men some relief from the oppressive impacts of racism. Membership in a volunteer fire company provided Black men the opportunity to bond and draw strength from one another. 

One of the best known Neptune volunteers was Charles Samuel Lafayette Alexander Taylor, born in Charlotte in 1854.

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Lt. Col. Charles Taylor, an original Neptune volunteer is buried at the Elmwood Pinewood Cemetery in Charlotte.

Educated in a Quaker school, he was an accomplished musician, a dancing master, a shoemaker, and a barber. Colonel Taylor served as an Alderman on the City’s Board of Aldermen between 1885 and 1887. He served in the Charlotte Light Infantry, first as a 4 Lieutenant and, after a year, was promoted to Captain. 

He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Third Regiment on June 23, 1898 and was known as Colonel Taylor from that time forth. 

In 1907, the fire chief discontinued the system of volunteer firefighters which necessitated an increase in the number of full-time firefighters.

Hazel E. Erwin, the first Black firefighter hired by Charlotte Fire.

Hazel E. Erwin, the first Black firefighter hired by Charlotte Fire.

It wouldn’t be for another 60 years, when Charlotte Fire hired its first Black firefighter, Hazel E. Erwin, on October 18, 1967.

In 2018, and in a long line of heroes who created the Charlotte Fire Department, the city hired Reginald T. Johnson, the first Black fire chief.

The legend of the Neptune lives in the spirit of Black firefighters in Charlotte. In 1984, the Fraternal Order of Progressive Firefighters was created by Black firefighters to establish unity among its members.  They also wanted to build a strong voice against the inequity and adversity they faced in the fire service.  

Now, forty years later, the Progressive Firefighters have evolved into the Neptune Fire Society of Charlotte to honor the history Black Charlotte Firefighters and enhance their legacy.

“We want to support and empower underrepresented firefighters as well as they communities we serve,” Charlotte Fire Engineer Venessa Roy, president of Neptune Fire Society Charlotte, said. 

The Neptune pumper now rests at the headquarters of the Charlotte Fire Department as a testament to the determination, grit and perseverance of the human spirit.

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

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