Delmar Davis of the SHC Fire Buffs, the 1952 class of Black volunteer fire fighters who paved the way for paid Black irefighters in Baltimore.
In 1952, seven WWII veterans opened the door for Blacks to enter the fire service in Baltimore. Today, only one of those seven remains, and a number of Baltimore citizens want to see he is recognized for his contribution in the fight for civil rights.
Delmar Davis, born in 1915, grew up in Baltimore and spent four years fighting in the Pacific theater during World War II. He returned to a still segregated Baltimore, where he and four friends, all interested in the fire service, used to hang around what was then Engine 13 in West Baltimore.
Though the four could not work in the fire service, they founded the SHC Fire Buffs in 1949, the country’s first Black firefighter’s club, naming it after three of the original four group members: James Smith, Arthur Hardy, and Elbert Carter.
Engine 13’s fire chief befriended the men, Davis said, giving them tips about becoming firefighters and even advocating on their behalf. In 1952, the four men were allowed to form the first Black firefighter class in Baltimore City, receiving the same training the city’s paid firefighters received, but relegated to a volunteer status because, by then, all the men were over the cut-off age for paid firefighters.
Davis said at the time he could make more money anyways working as a contractor than he could as a firefighter. However, despite the lack of pay and the resistance from the White firefighter’s union, the SHC Fire Buffs never lacked passion for fighting blazes.
“We were such enthusiastic firefighters, we never refused an order,” said Davis. “We never refused an order and when we saw a firefighter in need, he was never ignored regardless.”
The SHC Fire Buffs were tasked with answering second alarms, the alarm signaling a fire had become more than initial responders could manage, and often meant there were other, White, firefighters in need of rescue.
“I would want to remember the courage the seven of us had,” said Davis of his fellow buffs. “Matter of fact, it wasn’t a week or two after they assigned us, that one of us saved one of their firefighters.”
That skill and tenacity in fighting fires from an all-Black, volunteer force would lead to the first Black, paid class of Baltimore City firefighters in 1954. “They were the first group of Blacks allowed to ride on the fire trucks,” explained Skip Barber, public information officer for the SHC Fire Buffs. “From that, Mayor D’Alesandro then said, ‘Black volunteers? Why not Black paid firefighters?’ So he put in a bill, at that time that city council was to vote on for Black firefighters, and it took eight tries for that to happen.”
Dr. Estella Ingram-Levy, a Baltimore area resident, has sought to raise awareness of the important contribution to civil rights that Davis and his fellow firefighters in the SHC made, noting there isn’t a plaque anywhere to commemorate the group.
“What one should remember about Delmar, he is the only survivor, who set the pace not only for other Blacks to enter the fire department, but police officers, and any of these public servants,” said Ingram-Levy.
For Davis, what is most important is remembering the courage he and his brothers in the SHC Fire Buffs demonstrated not only in fighting fires, but in helping to pave the way for Black firefighters throughout the country. “ was just part of my life,” said Davis. “What you want, you had to fight for, and that was my desire.”