City’s first Black firefighters left a legacy – an unforgettable day for needy children

Robert Ware points to himself in a pictures of the 16 original  African-American firefighters at Atlanta Fire Department's Station 16 in Vine City. That station has hosted a community-wide Christmas Party for 50 years. The party had to be cancelled this year due to COVID-19. The station is also where the city's first were employed. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Robert Ware points to himself in a pictures of the 16 original African-American firefighters at Atlanta Fire Department's Station 16 in Vine City. That station has hosted a community-wide Christmas Party for 50 years. The party had to be cancelled this year due to COVID-19. The station is also where the city's first were employed. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Picture the look on a child’s face when Christmas arrives and, with it, a brand-new bicycle. Now multiply that by 500.

That was the heartwarming sight last December when Fire Station 16 in northwest Atlanta hosted its annual Christmas party for some of the area’s needy children.

“We get our joy on the day of – when the kids are here out back, playing and riding their new bikes,” said Chad Thomas, a captain with Atlanta Fire Rescue and coordinator of the Christmas party. “It’s a feeling like no other.”

About 500 children, ages 3 to 12, came last year with their parents, grandparents, and siblings to what was Station 16′s 49th and largest holiday party.

Santa rode in on a red firetruck, and each child rode out with a new bicycle – gifts from private donors, individual firefighters and fire stations. In between, the children – many of whom were accompanied by their parents, grandparents, and siblings – filled up on holiday food, had their faces painted, gathered up armloads of toys to take home, and posed for pictures with Santa.

“Always the highlight is when Santa comes through every year,” said Atlanta Fire and Rescue Chief Randall Slaughter. “The kids just go crazy.”

The party – which isn’t being held this year due to the coronavirus – is part of this fire station’s rich history.

Atlanta was behind other major cities, including Chicago and New York, in integrating its fire department in the early 1960s. Mayor Ivan Allen was under pressure from civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Wesley Dobbs, to take action, Slaughter said.

The department hired 16 Black firefighters on April 1, 1963. All were assigned to Station 16, which moved that year from Marietta Street to its current location at 1048 Joseph E. Boone Blvd., the former home of Theodore “Tiger” Flowers, the first Black World Middleweight Boxing Champion (1926).

Initially, the 16 were not allowed to fight fires and were instead relegated to clean-up duties, or what the department calls “salvage and overhaul,” Slaughter said.

The community treated the new firefighters like celebrities when they went back and forth to work – often by bus – looking smart in their dress uniforms, the chief said. Once the 16 were allowed on regular fire calls, they were alarmed by the area’s poverty and the number of local children without proper shoes and clothing, he said.

“Children would come around the firehouse, and they didn’t have enough food to eat, or at least not to last them all day,” said Robert Ware, one of the original 16.

The crew at Station 16 began serving Thanksgiving dinner to small crowds from the community.

“Then word got around,” Ware said. “People would donate money and food, and it just got bigger and bigger.”

Another dinner was added each December after the worry became: What about the children and Christmas? (Eventually, the Thanksgiving meal was dropped.)

Karissa Ferrell-Hinkle (left) & Anissa Ferrell holds a plaque in honor of Rosa Marie Ferrell (Anissa's mother, Karissa's grandmother) who cooked for the annual community-wide Christmas Party at Fire Department's Station 16 in Vine City. The party had to be cancelled this year due to COVID-19. The station is also where the city's first African-American firefighters were employed. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Karissa Ferrell-Hinkle (left) & Anissa Ferrell holds a plaque in honor of Rosa Marie Ferrell (Anissa's mother, Karissa's grandmother) who cooked for the annual community-wide Christmas Party at Fire Department's Station 16 in Vine City. The party had to be cancelled this year due to COVID-19. The station is also where the city's first African-American firefighters were employed. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Rosa Marie Ferrell, known affectionately as “Momma Marie, was a fixture at these dinners in the 30-plus years she was a city 911 supervisor. The same was true for her turkey, string beans and dressing, said her only daughter, Anissa Ferrell.

“Cooking was her hobby, and she always wanted to cook for a big family,” Ferrell said.

The Christmas party eventually grew so large that the fire station had to have it catered by restaurants, including Church’s Fried Chicken and Chick-Fil-A, Thomas said.

Preparations for the party now begin each summer, with Thomas calling prior-year donors to ask if they are still on board to help.

Slaughter, who was coming to the party long before he became chief, personally donates two or three bikes every year and challenges his command staff members to do the same.

In 2017, the Atlanta Fire Foundation began pitching in to ensure that, as the party continues to grow, the station can provide a minimum of three toys and a bike per child, said Shirley Anne Smith, the foundation’s executive director.

The party lost a major supporter in 2018 with Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr.’s death. Young contributed $2,500 annually to the party, and there was concern that the party might be canceled. But his successor on City Council, Antonio Brown, has carried on the legacy, also giving generously to the party, the chief said.

Lt Douglas Harris looks at some sports equipment in a room that is normally filled with kids toys & gifts this time of year for the community-wide Christmas Party that Atlanta Fire Department's Station 16 has hosted for 50 years in Vine City. The party had to be cancelled this year due to COVID-19. The station is also where the city's first African-American firefighters were employed. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Lt Douglas Harris looks at some sports equipment in a room that is normally filled with kids toys & gifts this time of year for the community-wide Christmas Party that Atlanta Fire Department's Station 16 has hosted for 50 years in Vine City. The party had to be cancelled this year due to COVID-19. The station is also where the city's first African-American firefighters were employed. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

This year would have been the 50th year for the party, were it not for the pandemic.

“We had to cancel out of an abundance of caution,” Chief Slaughter said. “We have lots of kids, and, since most of the time, they bring their parents, siblings, and grandchildren, it was just too much opportunity for the coronavirus to spread.”

The staff even investigated several alternatives, including a gift drop-off or pick-up but could not eliminate all safety concerns, Thomas said. “We’re really heartbroken,” he said.

Added Chief Slaughter: “We look forward to getting on the other side of this global pandemic so we can continue with this great annual tradition.”

MORE DETAILS

Atlanta Fire Station 16 served as the home of the first 16 Black firefighters hired by the Atlanta Fire Department. Those men were door-openers for the city’s first seven Black female firefighters, said Randall Slaughter, Atlanta’s fire chief.

Want to help? Contact The Atlanta Fire Rescue Foundation and mention “Station 16 Christmas Party.”

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