Engine Company No. 11

Firefighter Stephen Presco, Engine 11. Image provided by Fireman's Hall Museum

1016 South Street (at Alder Street)

Engine Company 11 was one of the original 22 fire companies established by Philadelphia's first paid, municipal Fire Department in 1871.Until the Philadelphia Fire Department officially desegregated in 1952, Engine 11 was Philadelphia's de facto African American firehouse. The building at 1016 South Street now belongs to the Waters Memorial African Methodist Church; the current Engine 11 station house is a few blocks down at 601 South Street.

Although Philadelphia had a tradition of volunteer fire service dating back to the 18th century, blacks had always been excluded from serving. The rowdy volunteer brigades, organized according to neighborhood boundaries, political party, and ethnicity, were always entirely composed of white men. But between 1790 and 1820 Philadelphia experienced a significant growth of its black population, and African Americans wanted the same opportunity as other citizens to protect their homes and neighborhoods from fires.

In 1819, a group of black Philadelphians led by James Forten, a successful sail maker and leading abolitionist, proposed starting the African Fire Service. But the AFS movement quickly collapsed in the face of virulent attacks in the white press, public threats from white firefighters, and rising anger from the white public.

The paid Philadelphia Fire Department was organized in 1871 with 22 engines and 5 truck companies, replacing the loose confederation of 92 volunteer companies. Philadelphia did not hire its first black firefighter, Isaac Jacobs, until 1886. Jacobs was stationed at Engine 11, and although designated a hoseman, in reality he was relegated to caring for the company's horses. He served until 1891. In 1905, Philadelphia hired its second African American firefighter, Stephen E. Presco. Unlike Jacobs, Presco actually fought fires, and died in the line of duty in a shirtwaist factory blaze. Engine 11 became the firehouse where all African American firefighters were stationed, often working under white supervisors and chiefs.

Despite their treatment as second-class citizens and firefighters, the members of African American Engine 11 provided first-class service. The men of Engine 11 risked their lives for citizens of all colors, and for fellow white firefighters who would not work alongside them. Engine 11 men forged the camaraderie and bonds shared by firefighters who risk their lives everyday; this bond was further reinforced by their outsider status in the wider fire service brotherhood.

Philadelphia's Fire Service remained segregated until 1952, when the city officially de-segregated the service. However, true integration proceeded slowly over the following two decades. There remained a need for mutual support and equal rights for black firefighters, so in 1962 African American firefighters formed Club Valiants, Inc., the founding chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters. The Valiants provided mutual assistance to members and continued the fight for equal rights and integration within all levels of the Fire Department through legal action and political pressure. Today the group continues to serve Philadelphia's African American firefighters and their families and counts Fire Commissioner Lloyd Ayers among its members.

In the spring of 2008, Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program memorialized the history of Engine 11 with a mural on the 6th and South Streets station.

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