Hall’s Hill Honors First Paid Black Firefighters and Station 8 Legacy
By Kristin Adair
In 1952, Hartman S. Reed was so eager to start his new job at Fire Station 8 in Hall’s Hill that he wanted to work the day after he returned from his tour of duty in the Navy. Instead, he had to wait three weeks to ride the fire truck as the fifth paid African-American firefighter at Station 8.
Captain Reed remembers the station in the early years, a two-bay garage with a small office and bunk room but little else. The garage housed two aging fire trucks, American LaFrance models from 1929 and 1931.
“It was a fire truck without a roof, nothing but a windshield,” Reed recounts of the older truck. “It was quite a thing to have to travel in especially when the weather was bad.”
In 1918, residents of Hall’s Hill had come together to start their own volunteer fire company at a time when segregation left the community unserved by other local fire and rescue companies. Decades later, beginning in 1951, Arlington County hired the first paid firefighters at Station 8—more than ten years after the county started paying firemen at the other stations.
The original 14 firemen at Station 8 are believed to have been the first paid black firefighters south of the Mason-Dixon line. They were: Alfred W. Clark, Julian Syphax, George McNeal, Archie Syphax, Hartman S. Reed, James K. Jones, Carroll Deskins, Henry Vincent, Carl Cooper, Ervin Richardson, Jimmie Lee Terry, Wilton Hendrick, William “Bill” Warrington and Thurman “Bobby” Hill.
On May 21, JMLCA hosted a special event to honor these local heroes with a crowd of more than 200 in attendance. Captain Reed, Julian Syphax and Carl Cooper spoke about their experiences at Station 8. Many current and former Arlington County Fire Department personnel were present as well as County Board Chair Libby Garvey and a representative from the office of Governor Terry McAuliffe.
Captain Reed served 27 years with the Arlington Fire Department, becoming the first African-American to hold the title of Station Commander. He served alongside two relatives, Julian and Archie Syphax, who had initially recruited him.
They recall fondly a brotherhood of dedicated men who served their community despite the sometimes harsh discrimination they faced in segregation-era Arlington.
On one occasion, a crew from Station 8 was called to a fire but the residents turned them away and opted to wait for another station to respond rather than allow the black firefighters to hook up their hoses. Captain Reed recounts another incident, a large multi-alarm fire at an oil refinery in Rosslyn on a frigid winter night. Nearly all of the fire trucks in the county were called, but the dispatcher passed over Station 8.
Reed laughs as he remembers sitting in the station with Archie Syphax listening to the radio dispatch, “I'm telling you we listened to this thing and it was cold out there, very cold, and we said, ‘thank goodness for Jim Crow.’”
Through it all, Station 8 remained a centerpiece of the community. During the 1950s and 1960s, volunteers from the neighborhood worked alongside the paid firefighters. But many people also came to the station to hear news, socialize, play games and connect with their neighbors. The station even had a popular attraction—the first color television in Hall's Hill.
The firemen were seen as leaders in the community. They knew everyone’s names, always heard about what was going on in the community and even called out local kids who had gotten into trouble on their way to school.
“We did have a very strong influence on the community,” says Captain Reed. “That's what I would like [people] to remember, that we were involved in most of the activity of the community.”
For more information, visit http://library.arlingtonva.us/2015/08/04/legacy-halls-hill-vfd-and-station-no-8/