If firefighters were playing a round of trivia they might ask, “Which American busted down racial barriers and paved the way for black firefighters nationwide?” The first name that comes to mind is Arthur “Smokestack” Hardy.
Although the Baltimore City Fire Department was founded in 1859, it would be nearly 100 years before black men could join the fire service. It would be decades more before they would receive equal compensation and opportunities.
Guy Cephas, curator of the Arthur “Smokestack” Fire Museum in West Baltimore eloquently illustrates this journey with an astonishing collection of rare articles and photographs. For decades, Guy has worked tirelessly to educate visitors on this vital aspect of American history.
Despite being excluded, many black men voluntarily combated blazes and worked on the fire grounds, risking their lives in order to protect people and property. The SHC Fire Buffs Club, founded by Arthur “Smokestack” Hardy in 1949, was America’s first black firefighters’ club. Named after James M. Smith, Hardy and Elbert C. Carter, the SHC club helped to dismantle segregation in the Baltimore City Fire Department. The Arthur “Smokestack” Hardy Museum, a collection of black firefighters’ memorabilia, includes among its artifacts a faded blue playbill from a minstrel show held by the Baltimore City Fire Department in the 1940s. At the age of three, Smokestack witnessed the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904. It blazed for forty-eight hours and required the assistance of twenty-four local and interstate fire departments. More than 140 acres, 15,000 buildings and almost 3,000 businesses were lost, resulting in millions of dollars in damages. While the fire caused only one death, 35,000 people were left without jobs. Within two years, however, Baltimore had come back to life. People had worked frantically to rebuild the city.
The Great Baltimore Fire kindled Smokestack’s passion for firefighting. As a child, he began following horse-drawn fire wagons. And although he wanted nothing more than to join the fire department, this was forbidden. It wasn’t until 1952 that Smokestack, along with five other black men, was at last permitted to support the paid companies as a volunteer with the integrated Baltimore City Firefighter’s Auxiliary. Regularly attired in a blue dress uniform, Smokestack Hardy, the photographer, historian and civil rights activist, became a legend amongst firefighters nationwide. He died in 1995 at the age of ninety-four. Today, thanks to the efforts of Guy and visitors to the Arthur “Smokestack” Hardy Museum, the house at 405 McMechen Street is named after this great American legend.
To visit the Arthur “Smokestack” Hardy Fire Museum, please contact Guy Cephas, 443-919-9310.
Further reading: City Paper “Charmed Life”