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Precious Places

Engine #11: A Journey of Segregation

Segregated from 1919 to 1952, Engine 11 was an all-black fire station on South Street. The firehouse recruits, known as the “leather lungs,” would often work the most dangerous jobs.

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About the location

Organized in 1871, the Philadelphia Fire Department did not appoint its first Black firefighter until 1886. From then until 1917 the Department employed only a single African American, who was always stationed at Engine Company 11, at 1016 South Street. After the city instituted the two-platoon system in 1918, the department doubled in size.  By 1923 Engine Company 11 had a full complement of twenty black firemen, who served under a white captain, lieutenant, and engineer, all of whom slept in a separate room on the second floor. The presence of a Jim Crow Fire Company under white command was source of contention throughout the 1920s.  Community demands for promotion for a Black lieutenant were finally won in 1931with the appointment of Peter C. Graham.  Despite their treatment as second-class citizens and firefighters, the members of African American Engine 11 provided first-class service and fought fires side by side with firemen from other companies.  Engine Company 11 remained Philadelphia's de facto African-American firehouse until desegregation of the Fire Department in 1952. 

African American Firemen and white officers of Engine Company No. 11, circa 1923

About the project

The video was created through the Precious Places program at Scribe Video Center. It  uses the stories of the Engine’s five surviving firemen to explore the station’s history and its contribution to the surrounding neighborhood, and to contend for its recognition in the Philadelphia Fire Museum.