The History of the First African American Fire Company in Chicago

Engine 21, Chicago's First Black Fire Company

Engine 21 was Chicago’s first organized paid African American Firefighting Company. Established in the mid-1800's, the company only consisted of just six Black firefighters. But they are credited with being the first firefighters to come up with the idea to create and use a fire house sliding pole that would allow them to quickly descend from the upper level to the ground level - a method that was later adopted by every fire station around the world, and is still used in modern day.
The men of Engine 21 were local heroes who manned a hose reel and a steam engine. and together, they put out hundreds of fires in the city of Chicago. According to Black Heroes of Fire by Dekalb Walcott, this was a big deal for African Americans who had gone from slavery to freedom during this period of reconstruction in America.

Sadly though, in 1874, their fire station and equipment itself was destroyed in a fire often referred to as the "Second Great Chicago Fire". This fire was so massive that it wiped out more than 18,000 buildings in the city, and especially devastated a part of the city that was known as Black Chicago were many African Americans lived. More than 200 lives were lost.

Sadly, the Engine 21 firehouse was never rebuilt and the legacy of the city's first Black firefighters is rarely talked about today.