Hidden History: Knoxville man remembers decades as one of city’s first black firemen

Black History Month

Luther Bradley, 91, sat down with WATE 6 On Your Side looking back on decades of service as a Knoxville firefighter. He was one of the first black men hired by the Knoxville Fire Department.

“I was looking for some type of employment where I could take care of my family of course,” Bradley said.

When he was hired in 1952, Bradley had a wife and small children. His previous job as a brick mason forced him to travel too much.

“She wanted me to come home and help raise those kids, so I came home over the weekend and I read in the newspaper where they were going to be giving examinations for firemen,” Bradley remembered.

He took the test and passed. He and 10 others became the first black firemen in Knoxville making up the No. 4 fire hall.

“We went to work on August 6, 1952,” Bradley said.

It was a step in the right direction though at the time their engine company was still segregated from the rest

“We were a separate entity from the rest of the fire department. About the only time we came in contact with the other firemen was a the scene of a fire,” Bradley said. But he remembered they were not treated any differently when working together on scene.

It took until 1965 before the whole department was integrated, and over those years, Bradley shared his voice to spur change.

“I remember one march I was involved in. We passed in front of the fire department headquarters, and the white firemen went out there and they saw me in the march and they made a big to do about it you know and made certain statements like I shouldn’t be there or I should be fired or whatever,” Bradley recalled.

Bradley’s career thrived, however. He was promoted several times to a final rank of Deputy Chief by the time he retired at the end of 1988.

Throughout his career Bradley worked to recruit other African-Americans to become firefighters.

In 2017 he received the distinguished service award from the Dr. Martin Luther King Commemorative Commission.

Looking back on his career and his start he will tell you: “I took the job out of the necessity. I didn’t go there to try to prove any point.”

Being a part of positive change, even without intending it, has had a lasting impact.
 
“Sixty years ago there were no blacks in the fire department. That’s significant,” Bradley said. “I think all Americans ought to be treated alike.”

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