Civil Rights Tour: Employment - Engine Company No. 4, All-Black Unit

931 R Street NW

In its first fifty years since it was professionalized in the 1870s, the DC Fire Department had employed a few black firefighters, but none had ever achieved officer status until three African American firefighters petitioned the Fire Department for an all-black unit so they would have opportunities for promotion. The result was Engine Company No. 4, established April 3, 1919.

In 1918, 16-year veteran Private Charles E. Gibson, along with two colleagues, Private Frank Hall and Private Richard J. Holmes, proposed the idea of a separate unit and, with lobbying by members of Washington’s influential merchant community, the fire department agreed to it.

After hiring more African American firemen, the department chose Engine Company No. 4, at 474 Virginia Avenue SW as the first all-black company. The department promoted Private Gibson to captain, Private James G.B. Keys to lieutenant, and Private Holmes to sergeant, while Private Hall remained an administrator. Eleven other privates completed the company, and two more were appointed the following year. Later, four more all-black companies would form.

The DC Fire Department consolidated in 1940 and moved Engine Company No. 4 to the firehouse at 931 R Street NW, built in 1885 to house Engine Company No. 7. The original Engine Company No. 4 building on Virginia Avenue was shortly thereafter demolished. The department continued a separate staffing and promotional process until 1962, when the fire department desegregated and split up its five all-black companies.

In 1976, Engine Company No. 4 moved to new quarters at 2531 Sherman Avenue NW, renamed in 2009 to honor the late Chief Burton W. Johnson. Johnson, who was appointed in 1943 to Engine Company No. 4 when it was housed at 931 R Street NW, later became the DC Fire Department's first African American fire chief and DC's first African American fire marshal.

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