All-Black firefighter advocacy group continues to promote equality for those in fire service

ByRachel Brown and Danielle Nelson KABC logo
Wednesday, February 15, 2023
Stentorians hope to promote equality for those in fire service
For many, becoming a Black firefighter seemed like a long shot - until they had the right support to learn from the best.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Firefighting has been around for centuries, but for African Americans the fight was far beyond the flames. The Stentorians continue to promote equality for everyone in the fire service.

Their honor and passion is everywhere once you're welcomed into their space.

"I can't visualize my life without being a Stentorian, without being a firefighter," said Capt. Robert Hawkins, vice president of the Stentorians.

Their deep history isn't widely known - even to some of their own. But these men and women continue the legacy of their founders in neighborhoods across Los Angeles.

"All of them had a fascinating story about their experience, trial and tribulations. It was just mind-blowing to me," said retired Capt. Brent Burton, co-founder and historian for the African American Firefighter Museum.

The Stentorians are an all-Black firefighter advocacy organization in Los Angeles.

Inequality for African American firefighters stretched over decades. The group was founded in 1954, dedicated to moving the department from segregation to integration.

"The original Stentorians at the time were segregated into two fire stations. They worked with the fire department to change the times so that I can be hired, so that I could promote to captain," Hawkins said.

For many, becoming a Black firefighter seemed like a long shot - until they had the right support to learn from the best.

Pride in mentoring and giving back to the community is the core of the Stentorians. One of the challenges they face is introducing the fire service to Black women.

"When I came on...I didn't understand the context. What I found was a great opportunity, great job," said Michelle Banks, co-founder and president of the African American Firefighter Museum.

Banks was the third Black woman to be in uniform as a paramedic for the Los Angeles City Fire Department. While she recommends the fire service to other women, she says it's not easy.

"You deal with everyone and many folks who are not having their best day. There are children who come through here, even adults through the African American Firefighter Museum who still don't know there are women firefighters," Banks said.

History of the Stentorians and Black firefighters can be found in the African American Firefighter Museum, which is housed in former Station 30, one of two segregated fire stations in L.A.

The other was Station 46 which is now the central location for the Stentorians.

"This is the only place you'll see the chronicle of history, the letters that we have, the newspaper articles, the pictures, the artifacts and of course a lot of the stories from these men when they got integrated and what they had to endure. So people need to understand that it wasn't that long ago," Burton said.

The museum just celebrated 25 years. The Stentorians believe hearing their story about the fight to desegregate is key.

"This is our story ... gives you a sense of confidence. I see the Stentorians just moving along. I feel that they're going to be more connected with the community because the community is what really uplifts us," said Gerald Durant, fire inspector and president of the Stentorians.

The Stentorians aim to grow its membership and live up to the standard of its founders. They'll carry that torch far beyond the fire department.

"This has shaped me to who I am today. I've been a Stentorian member ever since I was 17 years old. Unity is big in our future," Hawkins said.