MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. (FOX 9) - It took a lawsuit and a federal order in 1971 to open up jobs to minorities in the Minneapolis Fire Department. But as far back as 135 years ago, there were black men working as Minneapolis Firefighters and serving in leadership roles.
A firehouse where these men lived and worked is still standing and there’s work being done to tell their story to future generations.
The old firehouse is tucked into the corner of 45th and Hiawatha. And right now the building doesn’t show the immense history that exists in its walls. Built in 1907, this building was Fire Station #24, where every firefighter was African American. When #24 was built and the men were assigned there, it was an act of segregation.
It was built along the rail line where many African Americans had settled and where grain companies had built storage facilities that would need a quick response in case of fire.
Retired Hennepin County Judge LaJune Lange has been on a mission to save the building and tell the story of Fire Station #24.
"Several years prior to the discovery of this exact location, someone basically whispered to me that there was an all-black fire station, so I was about finding the needle in the haystack," says Judge Lange.
"It was what we call ‘locked in the cupboard’ – so a lot of Black history is locked in the cupboard," Lange adds. "So it wasn’t that I’m the first one to know about the story. The story was, it was just locked in the cupboard so only a few people knew about it," she adds.
There are a few pictures and names that are known. There’s Archie Spence, Oscar Clark, James Cannon and Lafayette Mason. John Cheatham was the leader there. Born in 1855, he came to Minneapolis as a freed slave. Hired in 1888, he became a fire captain by 1899. He was likely the first African American hired by the department, but most definitely among the earliest black men hired. This research provided by the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery.
A 1906 newspaper article details the controversy over segregating the men and how some people in the neighborhood opposed having an all-black brigade at the location of Fire Station #24. But a petition signed by 60 white women in the neighborhood supported the men being in that location. Judge Lange says they were known for being excellent at their jobs, relying on horses to get them where they needed to go.
"I recall reading that this station was able to arrive at a fire faster than the neighboring stations," says Judge Lange. "And this station to know in a segregated environment, they served everybody," she adds. "It didn’t matter what they looked like, they were there to respond."
The original lockers are still in the building. There’s a hole in the ceiling for the fire pole and the staircase is original. At least 11 black men worked for the Minneapolis Fire Department here. And many of John Cheatham’s relatives still live in Minneapolis.
Brothers Corey and Ludy Webster are great, great, great nephews of Cheatham’s.
"Well for me, it’s really hard to imagine what he may have had to go through to even obtain that position," says Corey Webster. "And then to find out there wasn’t another black fire captain until the mid-1990’s, that’s hard to swallow," says Corey.
"At the time, there were strides being made if you look back at history. And there was some equality actually happening," says Corey. "And then from what I’ve read, Jim Crow comes along and then everything is starting over again," says Corey.
Fire Station #24 was closed in 1941, at the time employing both black and white men. But black men either lost their jobs or were phased out. And it would be 1971 before another African American was hired by the Minneapolis Fire Department. That took the work of a lawsuit to open the hiring process to minorities. And one of the paralegals working on the suit was none other than Judge LaJune Lange.
"We know in society, we move forward and we have retrenchment and we lose ground and that has been the history of America," says Judge Lange.
Minneapolis designated this building as a historic landmark in 2022. And the city renamed a road near the building for John Cheatham. And now it is time to share more of this story.
"We find a lot of black history locked in the cupboard," says Lange. So that’s why it’s called ‘daylighting’," she adds. "It’s not that you’re writing new history, but you are unlocking and opening doors so the history that’s already there can reach the public," says Lange.
Fire Station #24 is now home to a children’s art center called Adventures in Cardboard. The owner, Julian McFaul, is committed to making it a space that honors the memory of these firefighters and he wants the building to be a place where people can come and learn the history of #24.
Today, Minneapolis has a black fire chief, Bryan Tyner, who was promoted to that position in 2020. He is the second black fire chief in the city of Minneapolis.