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September 11, 2020

Royal Towns and Oakland Fire Department’s 22 Engine Company

The Oakland Fire Department (OFD) was officially formed on March 13th, 1869. Although OFD became one of the first in the nation to hire African American firefighters, Black firefighters were only allowed in segregated stations, with Engine No. 22 (also known as 22 Engine Company), in 1925, being the first.[1] It was at this station, located at 3230 Magnolia Street, that a young man named Royal Towns started his long career with the Oakland Fire Department.

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Royal Towns and Oakland Fire Department’s 22 Engine Company

The Oakland Fire Department (OFD) was officially formed on March 13th, 1869. Although OFD became one of the first in the nation to hire African American firefighters, Black firefighters were only allowed in segregated stations, with Engine No. 22 (also known as 22 Engine Company), in 1925, being the first.[1] It was at this station, located at 3230 Magnolia Street, that a young man named Royal Towns started his long career with the Oakland Fire Department.

Royal Towns was born in Oakland, California in 1899. His grandfather, who had been enslaved in Kentucky, came to California during the Gold Rush. Royal attended the West Oakland Free Kindergarten, Prescott elementary school, and studied at Laney College.

Group of students with musical instruments on steps of the Prescott School_1914_PC-CO-Alameda County-Oakland-Schools-General_Box 011

Royal Towns is the student on the far left.

Hired in 1927, he became the OFD’s 11th Black firefighter. His obituary in the Oakland Tribune, (7-24-90) states that it wasn’t until 15 years later that the OFG hired another Black firefighter. Towns was instrumental in supporting other African Americans to join the department, volunteering his time to coach and mentor potential recruits to help them with the competitive civil service exams and discriminatory hiring process required to join the department. In his oral history, Cottrell Lawrence Dellums, African American trade union activist and the first chairman of the Alameda County Branch of the N.A.A.C.P., talked about the way the system was set up against Black firefighters:

“See, when the city of Oakland finally decided to hire Negro firemen, they set aside one station and they put all the Negroes in that one station. Therefore, you see, there were a number of Negro firemen that could be employed limited to that one station. So once that station was filled with Negroes, then there were no vacancies. So there was no way for another Negro to get in till one of those died or retired, which created a vacancy. Roy, even though he was in the place because there was no other place for him to be, never accepted it. He lived with it but Roy Towns never accepted it. He worked with the association—the NAACP—and helped our attempt to break it up.”[2]

Group portrait, Engine Company No. 22, Oakland Fire Department, ca. 1949; California Historical Society
Engine Company No. 22, Oakland Fire Department, ca. 1949; California Historical Society

Standing (L-R): M.F. Pursley, Herman Watkins, Dumoil Carter, Elmer Romine, Willie Thomas, Eugene Jones, Milton Williams, Ernest Allen, Milo Gaskin, Burl Smith, James Stanislaus

Seated (L-R): William Williams, Royal Towns, Capt. W.P. Taylor, Engineer Roy Treece, George Allen

In 1941, Towns became the first African American to be appointed as the fire department’s chief operator. He was eventually promoted to lieutenant, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1962.”[3] As an Oakland firefighter, Towns fought many of the biggest fires in Oakland’s history, including the Oakland Army Base fire of 1941 and the Treasure Island fire in 1942. Royal Towns was married to his wife Lucille for 67 years, and they raised two daughters.  Royal Towns died in Oakland in 1990 at the age of 91.

[1] https://www.oaklandca.gov/resources/a-brief-history-of-the-oakland-fire-department

[2] : C.L. Dellums, International President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Civil Rights Leader, with an introduction by Tarea Hall Pittman. An interview conducted by Joyce Henderson, 1970-1973, Berkeley, Calif., Bancroft Library. Regional Oral History Office

https://oac.cdlib.org/view?query=royal+town&docId=hb938nb6fv&chunk.id=div00028&toc.depth=1&toc.id=0&brand=oac4&x=0&y=0

[3] Royal E. Towns papers, MS 26, African American Museum and Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library. Oakland, California, https://oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/c85h7h4w/admin/#bioghist-1.3.7