Before Charlotte was chartered, Black firefighters helped secure the safety and security of family homes and businesses from the devastation of fire. Black firefighters, known as the Neptunes, were steadfast in their resolve to keep the community safe.
Early in the 19th century Charlotte was a bustling village, with all the commercial and manufacturing establishments necessary to sustain an agricultural and farming economy. Charlotte covered more than 1.5 square miles, large enough that bucket brigades were inadequate for fire protection.
The coordination and commitment required to operate fire engines led to the creation of volunteer fire companies in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Charlotte was among the many towns that incorporated volunteer fire companies and supplied them with publicly owned fire engines, hoses, hooks, ladders and other essential equipment.
Several volunteer fire companies were operating in Charlotte by September 1835, but before the Civil War there were no Black volunteers in Charlotte or elsewhere in the South. Slave owners were requested to allow their enslaved people to participate in firefighting activities. When the fire bell hung on the square at Trade and Tryon Streets, volunteers and enslaved people would assemble at the square to locate and run to a fire, while others would go to the station at North Church and West Fifth streets to get the hand pump.
The Black community petitioned the Charlotte Board of Aldermen to stand up a Black volunteer fire company as early as the 1850s, but it was the defeat of the Confederacy and the end of slavery that gave Black men opportunities to become volunteer firefighters. Two African American fire companies were formed, the Yellow Jackets and the Dreadnaughts.
The City of Charlotte provided supplies, facilities, and equipment to the Yellow Jacket Fire Company, just as it did for the white firefighters, and the city designated the hand-pumper it had purchased in 1857 as the engine for the African Americans to use. Nicknamed "Crazy Hannah," the apparatus had a reputation of being unreliable, but the Yellow Jackets put it to good use.
The stellar standing the African American firefighters enjoyed in the community likely prompted the city to acquire a more reliable fire engine for the Yellow Jackets.
The city purchased a used hand pump in August 1875 for testing by the Black firefighters of Charlotte. Manufactured in Rhode Island and placed in service in New Jersey in 1861, the engine was designed to shoot water 200 feet. When it arrived from New York City, the African American volunteers in Charlotte changed the name of their company from the Yellow Jackets to Neptune No. 3, in honor of the volunteer company that had operated the hand pumper in New Jersey, known as Neptune No. 2.
On May 20, 1875, the Charlotte Fire Department formed and Charlotte's Board of Aldermen chose four firefighting units to comprise the department. Among these units were the Neptunes, stationed on what is now the 100 block of West Sixth Street.
The Neptunes continued to distinguish themselves throughout their history.
One of the best-known Neptune volunteers was Charles Samuel Lafayette Alexander Taylor, born in Charlotte in 1854. Educated in a Quaker school, he was an accomplished musician, a dancing master, a shoemaker and a barber. Taylor served on the city's Board of Aldermen between 1885 and 1887, and in the Charlotte Light Infantry, a Black military unit, as a lieutenant, captain and ultimately lieutenant colonel in the late 1800s.
In 1907, the fire chief discontinued the system of volunteer firefighters which necessitated an increase in the number of full-time firefighters. It wouldn't be for another 60 years, when the Charlotte Fire Department hired its first African American firefighter, Hazel E. Erwin, on Oct. 18, 1967.
The legend of the Neptune lives in the spirit of Black firefighters in Charlotte.
In 2018, the city hired Fire Chief Reginald T. Johnson Charlotte's first African American fire chief and the latest in a long line of heroes who to run the Charlotte Fire Department.
In 1984, the Fraternal Order of Progressive Firefighters was established by Black firefighters to promote fellowship amongst its members, to organize and galvanize activities within the community, and to encourage diversity, equity and inclusion.
Firefighter and volunteer with the Progressives, Davon Hood suited up as Charles Taylor to give an oratorical narrative of Taylor and the Neptunes. Hood and all the Progressive volunteers are also members of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, which helps promote interracial progress throughout the fire service.
"We want to recruit and mentor firefighters of color. The backgrounds that we come from were not from the firefighting community," said Jackie Gilmore, fire captain and president of the Fraternal Order of Progressive Firefighters. "When we hire, our mission is to mentor these guys to help them with their job duties and to make them promotable."
The Neptune pump now sits in the headquarters of the Charlotte Fire Department as a testament to the determination, grit and perseverance of the human spirit.
Learn more about becoming part of the team at Charlotte Fire Department.