Arlington: Neighbors, Colleagues Honor Firefighters of Hall’s Hill

Arlington: Neighbors, Colleagues Honor Firefighters of Hall’s Hill

Reunion of firefighters, families, and neighbors was tribute to early firefighters.

From left: Captain Hartman Reed, Julian Syphax, and Carl Cooper speak about their years on Hall's Hill.

From left: Captain Hartman Reed, Julian Syphax, and Carl Cooper speak about their years on Hall's Hill. Photo by Eden Brown.


The cake, honoring the original 14 men, was donated to the Fire Station 8 event by Whole Foods.


Local singer Sherry Clark sang the “Star Spangled Banner” to open the event, and a version of "Wind Beneath My Wings" dedicated to the heroes at Fire Station 8

“How did I keep up a positive attitude despite segregation? I believe most of us wanted to prove that we were as good or better than the other firefighters in the county,” said Hartman Reed. “Because, you know, it was whispered around that we ‘colored’ men didn’t have as much courage as the white guys. We wouldn’t enter a burning building, they said. It was the same during World War II. They didn’t put us on the front lines because they said we would run. So yes, of course, we wanted to show we were as good ... or better. And I believe we did that.”

As he warned the assembled crowd at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association Building on Wilson Boulevard on Saturday, May 21, the 89-year-old likes to talk. Four of the original 14 Hall’s Hill firefighters who were hired, for the first time, to fight fires and save lives during segregation, were on the dais Saturday, regaling those who had come to honor them.

According to a proclamation read by County Board Chair Libby Garvey at the event, in 1918, Hall’s Hill residents organized Fire Station 8 because their community was denied service from any of the existing white stations. The all volunteer force worked until eventually 14 “Negro” firefighters were hired by Arlington County and constituted the first and only station in Arlington with paid black firefighters.

More than 200 people gathered for the chance to hear from men who lived life large. It was a better time, and a worse time. In those days, the men recounted, the Cherrydale fire station wouldn’t come to Hall’s Hill to fight a fire. So they had to fight their own fires. They learned on the job. They had inferior equipment. The firehouse was built on land they donated. But the stories they told were about firefighting, neighbors helping each other, and pride.

“This one fire, Station #3 was already there,” said Julian Syphax. “We were second due. As soon as we got outside, the building exploded. It burned to the ground. I heard a man talking about the expensive crystal goblets he had lost in the fire. They had cost a lot — maybe more than $100 a glass. “Don't put too much stock in things,” the man said to his son, putting his arm around the boy. “I will always remember that,” Syphax said.

“I'm 89 years old,” Syphax reminded the group. “I remember when the Pentagon caught fire. It was, when? The middle ‘60s. That was my most memorable fire. A lot of people didn't know about the basement in the Pentagon. There was microfiche stored down there. We went down and there was a lot of heat, smoke, and no ventilation. The only breathing apparatus we had was that old military breathing equipment with a cannister at the end. The cannister itself would get hot, so I ripped it off. I was overwhelmed with smoke. I'll always remember the Anderson clinic. I woke up in the clinic and thought I was in heaven. But then I remembered I'd been in that fire.”

“This fire happened right on Hall’s Hill,” said Reed. “There was a family named ‘Jeeves.’ Remember them? They had come downstairs because of the cold; it was too cold upstairs. Their blanket caught fire. I remember we took them out and laid them on the grass and they passed. I never forgot that.”

It was not all work. The firefighters told the crowd, “We pulled pranks on each other all the time. Sometimes it would take a whole week to get the other guy back, but sooner or later, we would. The fire station was a community place with games. People would stop in and play a game of chess or checkers. We even had some golf, In the back, a nice little three-hole green.”

Also honored, but unable to attend, were George McNeal, Archie Syphax, Alfred W. Clark, James K. Jones, Carroll Deskins, Ervin Richardson, Henry Vincent, Wilton Hendrick, William “Bill” Warrington, Jimmie Lee Terry, and Thurman “Bobby” Hill.

As the afternoon came to a close, Alexandra Bocian, head of the John Langston Civic Association, thanked the organizers — Barbara Carter, Marguarite Gooden, Kitty Clark-Stevenson, Rochelle Day, Peggy Jones, Donald Reed and Jerome “Dale” Smith, as well as the County Board and School Board members who attended. Bocian referred to the recent 8-2 vote by the Fire Station 8 Task Force to keep the fire station in its current location. She thanked Libby Garvey, Jay Fisette, and John Vihstadt, the three board members who pushed for the task force to review the decision to move the station, and the two new board members who urged a conversation on the issue: Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol. The room erupted in applause.

Rita Mansfield, who grew up in Hall’s Hill and still lives in the area, said she had spoken up at one meeting on Fire Station #8 saying she would go to the NAACP if the station moved. She said when it was first announced, as a fait accompli, the county officials said — just like that — “they are moving it and they are putting affordable housing in its place.” Mansfield had been shocked. “Cherrydale wouldn’t fight our fires,” she said. “We aren’t going to just let our fire station go. My mom is 95,” she added. “She might need emergency services as much as the person further north in the county.”

Apart from the congratulations letters from President Obama, Governor McAuliffe, and Senator Mark Warner, there were awards handed out to the 11 firefighters who weren’t at the ceremony. Captain James K. Jones had a note from his family which described the racism he encountered as a firefighter. A biased fire exam was designed to fail men from Fire Station 8 who tried to take the test. Jones had to tutor other firefighters who chose to take the test so they could pass it. Sometimes they would take it, pass it, and pass it with a score in the top five percent, and still see others with lesser grades get promoted first, because of their color.

Syphax told the group, “My mother wrote me there was an ad in the paper. They were hiring ‘coloureds’ in the fire department. I wanted to be a fireman so bad that I got out of the Navy and wanted to start the next day. I will always be grateful to Hall’s Hill. I married and raised my children there.”

Captain Tiffany Wesley from Station 5 provided closing remarks, noting she had risen to become the first black female captain, “standing on the shoulders of giants.” She was ashamed to say when she first was asked if she knew who the first black captain was in Fire Station 8, she did not know. From that moment she made it her job to know the history of Hall’s Hill station, so she and her fellow black firefighters would know their history and carry on from where the men on the dais had left off.

“I may be the first African-American woman to be promoted fire captain in Arlington, but I am sure I am not the last,” Wesley said, closing with, “All I am, I owe to you. I live eternally in the red.”