Black Firefighters Blazing Trails
By Chaya Harris
Every month is Black History Month with Outdoor Afro as we seek to honor ancestors who’ve paved the way before us along with those who walk with us today.
While we recently honed our fire building skills, we acknowledged indigenous peoples’ methods of cooperating with nature to manage wildfires and Black history, too. In that same vein, we celebrate Chief Engineer Patrick H. Raymond and Abu Baker, an Outdoor Afro Leader and firefighter for 17 years in the Oakland Fire Department in California.
Raymond was the first African American fire chief in the United States. He was appointed Chief Engineer in Cambridge, Mass., in 1871 after serving in the US Navy, working as a journalist at the Boston Herald and later editor of the weekly Cambridge Press.
He was born in Philadelphia, and his father escaped enslavement eventually becoming one of the first pastors at the African Meeting House in Boston. The Raymond family was well-known throughout the “lower Port” neighborhood in Cambridge.
As Abu Baker thinks of the fire service in Oakland in the 1870s, he pictures a segregated force where Black firefighters were forced to run behind the horse drawn fire engines. Raymond’s leadership adds to the pride he feels as part of the fire service. “I can imagine the strength of character he had to demonstrate at that time,” Abu said. “Being a firefighter, we take care of each other, we take care of our crews, and we take care of our communities. We have to move together.”
As the Chief Engineer, Raymond commanded a team of 79 officers and firefighters, expanded the fire department and advocated for safer standards. He tripled the annual budget, built two new firehouses and pushed for a fully paid professional fire department. During the Great Boston Fire of 1872, Raymond sent just about the entire department to help control the blaze.
“Nature is the ultimate de-briefer, but also the ultimate reset,”Abu reflected.
Although we often think of firefighters in connection to disasters, Abu shows that they are routine stewards of the land – and of people. They occasionally perform trail rescues, and while stationed at the firehouse in the Oakland Hills, he’s learned about the wild and urban interface through reading weather patterns, managing vegetation, protecting waterfronts, and maintaining fire trails.
“Every now and then there’s down time where I hop in the gator and get to cruise the trails in my immediate district. We call this district familiarization,” Abu said. “These are some times where I can just relax in nature. It mitigates work stress and is a great time to plan my Outdoor Afro events.”
Both Abu and Chief Raymond share their dedication to serving their community, and we can conclude how Raymond’s leadership impacted other Black men in the fire service.
“When I decided to be a firefighter, I had the good fortune to attend classes taught by Mr. Richard Logan, who was then president of the Oakland Black Firefighters Association,” Abu said. Logan was hired in 1972, served with the Oakland Fire Department for 30 years, and demonstrated great care and interest in helping prepare many women and men for fire service careers.
“The motto of the Oakland Black Firefighters Association is ‘All I Am, I Owe’ and I owe much to those such as Chief Raymond and Mr. Richard Logan,” Abu said.
Chief Raymond served for eight years, and was also elected corresponding secretary of the National Association of Fire Engineers in 1873. Engine Company No. 5 was established in his honor in 1874, and is still in service today in the Inman Square fire house. He died July 28, 1892 and was buried in the Cambridge Cemetery.
Retired Assistant Chief Jack Gelinas shared that the current Cambridge fire boat, Marine 1, is named the Patrick H. Raymond and provides fire and life safety protection to the Charles River area.
With leading Outdoor Afro experiences, Abu said, “I enjoy when we are able to come together to inspire and share Black joy. I love that we come after others who blazed trails, and that we can continue to be trail blazers.”
Thank you to the Cambridge Fire Department for their contributions.