In honor of Black History Month, NFPA is highlighting notable African-Americans who have made contributions to the cause of fire and life safety.
Molly Williams is recognized as the first black female firefighter in the United States. Williams was a slave, and was owned by a Manhattan businessman with an interest in firefighting. In 1818, a blizzard hit the city and an influenza outbreak took many male volunteer firefighters out of work. Williams took the place of the sick men, working at a firehouse in Lower Manhattan, and other firefighters credited her for being as tough as the male firefighters.
Garrett Morgan owned a sewing machine and shoe repair shop in Cincinnati in 1907. In 1911, after hearing about the tragic deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he invented a safety hood and smoke protector for firefighters. The hood, which contained a wet sponge to filter out smoke and cool the air, became the precursor to the gas mask. To sell his safety hood, Morgan had to hire a white actor to pretend to be the inventor.
To learn more about African-Americans and the fire service, visit the website for the African American Firefighter Museum. Located in Los Angeles, the museum contains vintage fire apparatus, stories, and pictures of pioneering African-American members of the fire service, as well as a tribute to the firefighters who perished during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City.