Fighting fires is one of Charlotte’s oldest professions, yet only recently did the Charlotte Fire Department begin digging into the mysteries of how the city handled blazes in the second half of the 1800s.
It was a time when fires were common, particularly during the Civil War years.
Some historians have suspected slaves set those war-era fires, but the truth is African-Americans were among Charlotte’s most dedicated firefighters.
In fact, an all-black company of volunteers supplied most of the manpower for the city’s fledgling fire department from 1887 to 1905.
Charlotte fire officials are now asking the public’s help to fill in the blanks surrounding that black fire company, which came to be known as the Neptunes.
“We’d hope descendants of those original firefighters are out there and might have old photos, badges, documents…anything connected with the Neptunes,” said Battalion Chief Tom Link of the Charlotte Fire Department.
“Once they disbanded, it’s hard to find anything more about them. At that time, Jim Crow was introduced into North Carolina and there was a huge migration of the black community to the Chicago area, D.C. and New York to get jobs. A lot of families left.”
The city acquired what might be the most treasured piece of Neptune memorabilia last spring: the 1866 Jeffers Hand Pump Fire Engine the team inherited from the all-white fire team called The Hornets.
It had been sold in 1901 and ended up in Marblehead, Mass., but city officials reportedly kept tabs on it through the decades, said Deputy Fire Chief H.D. “Pete” Key. The department bought the engine for a reported $50,000 and has it parked with other antique fire equipments at a fire station near downtown.
Key would like to see the engine used as a recruitment tool in the black community, which he says is largely unaware of the role African-Americans played in protecting the city from fire.
Link has been studying the history of African American firefighters in Charlotte and says he has found records dating back to 1834 that note the participation of Charlotte’s black populace in fighting fires, including women.
Prior to 1865, the company was called the Yellow Jackets. It consisted of slaves and freedmen, who stepped up while able-bodied white men were fighting in the Civil War, he says. At that time, fires were common, so participating in “bucket brigades” was considered a civic duty, much like voting.
In the later part of the 1800s, the Neptunes earned a reputation as skilled volunteers who often engaged in good natured competition with white firefighters. This includes races to see who could get to the fire scene first.
Historic accounts note some members were injured on the job, and at least one died of his injuries, earning the respect of their white community, Link says.
The Neptunes were a mix of prominent African-American businessmen, educators and community leaders, working alongside common laborers.
Records show the city even paid some of the team’s expenses, though its equipment was typically hand-me-downs from the white firefighting companies, officials said.
“They gained a sense of pride in being apart of the company and giving back to the community,” Key said.
Members of the company reportedly cried when their Jeffers Hand Pump Fire Engine was sold in 1901. Four years later, the city decided to abolish the Neptunes, due to the race-based politics of the era.
“The significance of the Neptunes is that they were firefighters at a time when blacks and whites worked together, and faced danger together,” Key says. “With all the adversity and prejudice they faced, they still came out to fight fires. It was as if they never lost hope and faith for a better future for their children.”
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