Savannah Fire & Emergency Services marked a significant event in the department’s history last week. On May 1st the department recognized the 50th anniversary of the re-integration of the Savannah Fire Department.
In 1963, the first six black firefighters were employed by the city of Savannah. The term re-integrate is used because in 1826 an ordinance was enacted providing for the enrollment of a greater number of free men of color. At that time, these enrollees were paid 121 cents per hour while engaged in drills or at fires.
Of the 100 blacks who signed up, the six men hired May 1, 1963 were former Savannah State College students and included: Purdy Bowers, Theodore Rivers, Lewis Oliver, Porter Screen, Cordell Heath, and Warnell Robinson. Only Oliver and Bowers are alive today. Neither considered what being hired meant at the time, but both are glad to have played some role in helping to move society forward.
The men were assigned to their own segre- gated quarters and their skills were questioned, but they did not let that stop them. It wasn’t until their first major fire at Fire Stone that people knew they were serious about their jobs. When asked was it worth it, Oliver says, “I was born June 4th, assigned to Station 4, and my badge number was 44, it was meant to be.”
Both Oliver and Bowers, along with Savannah Fire Chief Charles G. Middleton, were available on Wednesday to commemorate the milestone.
Chief Middleton showed his appreciation not only for Oliver, Bowers, and the other four men hired in ‘63, but also Savannah’s first black fire chief Paul Taylor. “What they did led the way. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a fire fighter, but these guys showed that it was okay.”
Bowers, 21 at the time, said he was “lucky to be one of the six men hired” was surprised yet proud to be honored on Wednesday. “We were a trial run. When I was drafted into the army, they were only sending a few blacks into other stations, but things have changed.”
On Thursday, May 2, Bowers and Oliver were recognized by Savannah City Council for their accomplishments with an official resolution.