Quick Steps: All-Black Volunteer Firefighters in Elizabeth City, NC

The oldest fire truck in the museum’s collection replaced a horse-drawn hook and ladder in one Tarheel city and was used by a particularly skilled group of firefighters.

The Quick Step Hook and Ladder Company, was Elizabeth City’s all-black volunteer fire company, experts in rescue, ventilation, and demolishing threatened structures using their famed “hooks.”  The company was formed in 1891.

Originally their hooks and ladders were transported in a horse drawn cart.  In 1921, the town purchased the 1917 Brockway Fire Truck that now resides in the N.C. Transportation Museum Back Shop.  It held a 35-gallon chemical tank and carried 250 feet of ladders.  It was replaced with an aerial ladder truck in 1950.

The Quick Steps were one of several all-black firefighting crews in North Carolina.  In 1890, the North Carolina Colored Volunteer Firemen’s Association (NCCVFP) was founded, and by the turn of the century, no fewer than 35 North Carolina cities used black fire companies.  The NCCVFP brought together African American volunteer firemen from across the state, holding annual conventions and tournaments.

According to Chuck Milligan’s Early Black Firefighters of North Carolina, “A parade would lead off the event with displays of fire equipment and flashy uniforms. Bands led the groups and the occasion was very festive. Bunting hung from buildings and poles were decorated. The firemen were welcomed by some of the prominent citizens and religious leaders.”  Competitions were held between departments that showed their firefighting readiness, including hose reel cart races, and other events.

These conventions were difficult to host, however, due to the lack of hotels that would accept African Americans.  That led to the tradition of the community opening their homes to those firefighters for the length of the tournament.

All-black fire companies continued in the Tarheel State through the 1950s and 60s.  Eventually, city and town run departments began to integrate all-black companies into the rest of the fire service.  The Quick Steps of Elizabeth City integrated in 1977.