Knoxville Fire Department

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Knoxville's First African-American Volunteer Fire Department Formed in 1868

First African-American Firefighters for Knoxville
These men were the first African-American firefighters to be hired by the City in 1952. A total of eight men were assigned to Engine Co. 4. The photo embedded in the upper left corner is of former Mayor George Dempster. Fire Chief C.M. Johnson is standing in the middle of the group. (Photo courtesy of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center)

William F. YardleyIn 1854, the first volunteer fire department in Knoxville formed with 100 volunteers. Fourteen years later, in 1868, William F. Yardley (pictured here) and William Luttrell formed a separate African-American volunteer fire department - and Yardley served as its first fire chief.

(Yardley was politically active in Knoxville, one of the first black members of the Board of Aldermen. He also ran for governor: Click HERE for details.)

However, while African-Americans have been protecting lives and property from fires in Knoxville for 149 years, they weren't paid and professionally trained by the City until the 1950s. And the City maintained segregated fire halls for another decade.

“In some ways, Knoxville was progressive, and in many other ways, we lagged behind,” says Fire Chief Stan Sharp, who studies KFD's history and cherishes its rare historic photos. Sharp, who places a high priority on diversity, bemoans the City's slowness in hiring African-American firefighters and integrating its fire halls.

"The Fire Department organized in 1885 as a paid department, but it remained segregated for the next 80 or so years," Sharp says.

There was an unsuccessful attempt in 1899 to hire African-American firefighters.

"I don't know why they wouldn't have done that," Sharp says, shaking his head.

Once KFD began hiring blacks, attitudes toward inclusiveness began to change. The new recruits were extensively trained, and they were assigned to carry out important duties - albeit initially from segregated fire halls.

In 1952, the City hired its first African-Americans as paid firefighters. Eight men joined KFD that year, and they were housed at a separate fire station, Station No. 4, in East Knoxville.

Sharp says that one of these original eight firefighters, Luther Bradley, worked his way up in the Fire Department - first earning the rank of captain, then deputy chief. He also served as the City's fire marshal. Bradley eventually retired from the department and is still living in Knoxville today.

Fire training in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of KFD Chief Stan Sharp.)Fire training in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of KFD Chief Stan Sharp.)

Sharp says it's important for Knoxville to acknowledge the service of its African-American firefighters.

“We need to honor these men and women who not only served the community, risking their lives as firefighters, but also for their roles as ground-breakers," he says.

Currently, the Fire Department reaches out to inner-city organizations when recruiting for its academies. KFD values diversity, Sharp says. It's a part of the mission of the department to make the community it serves aware of the career and service opportunities available at the Fire Department.

"We want our department to be reflective of the community as a whole,” Sharp says.

The present-day Knoxville Fire Department has more than 300 full-time professional firefighters and 19 fire stations.

One of City's 1st African-American Firefighters Rose Through the Ranks

Luther Bradley, 89, was one of the first African-Americans hired by the Fire Department in 1952. He served 36 years and rose to the rank of Deputy Chief.As a young man, Luther Bradley never envisioned how his life and career would unfold.

Then in 1952, an opportunity at the Knoxville Fire Department presented itself. Mayor George Dempster decided to hire African-American firefighters for the first time.

Bradley and 10 other African-American men were hired and trained for Fire Department duties. The firefighters, housed at the Engine Company No. 4 fire station in East Knoxville, started battling fires and protecting families on Aug. 6, 1952, after only about a month of training.

Luther Bradley as a young firefighter“I never, in my early years, dreamed of becoming a fireman,” says Bradley, who made firefighting his career.

He served as captain and later was assigned as the fire inspector for the Fire Prevention Bureau. Seven years after his promotion to fire inspector, he became assistant chief in charge of the bureau. Then in 1980, Luther Bradley was promoted to Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal.

He was born on Aug. 2, 1927, in Knoxville to Roy Bradley and Alma Hardin Bradley. Luther Bradley married Harriet E. Lee in 1948, and they have five children together. Prior to becoming a firefighter, he'd worked as a brick mason and had to travel to find work because masonry jobs in Knoxville were limited at the time.

“The most rewarding aspect of my job was that the job provided for my family of seven, my wife and five kids,” he says.

Throughout this month, City Blog has highlighted the achievements of several African-American leaders, focusing on political pioneers in the City's history and City employees who led integration efforts. Luther Bradley was one of those key historical figures - starting off in a segregated fire hall before earning promotions and helping KFD become more welcoming to minority firefighters.

Mayor Dempster hired the City's first African-American firefighters in 1952.In 1952, the men assigned to Engine Co. No. 4 were segregated from other fire companies. That continued until 1965, when the African-Americans staffing the East Knoxville fire station were relocated to other stations throughout Knoxville as part of efforts to integrate the Fire Department.

Bradley attributes the slow integration of the Knoxville Fire Department to the existence of Jim Crow laws and society-wide segregation during the 1950s and early 1960s. But he did his part - by setting an example as a firefighter and by participating in the Civil-Rights Movement - to nudge progress in Knoxville. During his career, Bradley helped recruit other African-Americans to become firefighters.

Luther Bradley served the Knoxville community as a firefighter for more than 36 years. He retired on Dec. 31, 1988.

Luther Bradley served many roles with the Fire Department in his 36-year career.Luther Bradley stores his protective firefighting clothing and helmets as a reminder of his years with the Knoxville Fire Department.

Luther Bradley stores his protective firefighting clothing, boots, helmets and other memorabilia as a reminder of his years with the Knoxville Fire Department.

Luther Bradley's lifetime of public service has been recognized by the City and by various community groups. Luther Bradley's badges tell the story of a distinguished 36-year career. He rose through the ranks to serve as a Deputy Chief.

Luther Bradley's lifetime of public service has been recognized by the City and by various community groups. Luther Bradley's badges tell the story of a distinguished 36-year career. He rose through the ranks to serve as Deputy Chief.

Carla Jones breaks gender, color barriers at KFD

Thank you to for this article on our very own KFD Assistant Chief Carla Jones.

KFD Assistant Chief Carla JonesCarla Renee Jordan Jones is one flat-out character you’ll never forget. This is a life-loving, family-loving, job-loving and sports-loving woman. For 30 years come December 2024, she’s been serving the city she loves – Knoxville – in a job she treasures. “For me going to work every day is like going to the playground.”

Her playground is the Knoxville Fire Department (KFD). Life for her is wrapped around family first, then her God and church, and then the KFD. Her office sits across the hall at KFD Headquarters from Chief Stan Sharpe. In June 2020 she was the first woman and the first-ever black woman to be promoted to the position of KFD assistant chief. In this role, she has key supervisory responsibility for logistics, recruiting and ISO ratings for fire insurance.

Jones is 56 with plans to retire in two years, she says. After graduating from Holston High School, she did a little college but eventually began working at a Walgreens store on Magnolia Avenue in 1991. “I was the assistant store manager and we always had the firemen coming in for things,” she remembers. “One day I was talking with one of them (she could not remember his name) who told me the department was hiring and I should join.”

It piqued her interest. She thought about it. “I really like the firemen. They were like heroes to me. So, I decided to apply and it’s been the best job ever for me. How great is it to be a firefighter. This job opened up my eyes to so many things I could do,” she said.

During her first 16 years at KFD she was a captain, a master firefighter, firefighter and an EMT. She rode the engines on calls like everyone else, living and working out of Station 13 (Chapman Highway), Station 10 (Sevier Avenue) and then at Station 16 (Asheville Highway) where she was promoted to captain. Following that promotion, she began working in the Fire Marshal’s Office as a fire inspector and fire officer. Those inspectors check for underground work construction to meet codes, plus fire alarms and sprinklers in commercial buildings and multi-story residential properties. It’s the business of the enforcement of the fire codes.

How would a co-worker describe her? Confident, humble, dependable, positive, efficient, easy to work with, handles business and great personality.

Her years of experience eased the way for her in the assistant chief’s job.

Logistics eats up about 80% of her time, she said. “We support the frontline workers, manage the remodeling of aging stations, deliver supplies to all 19 stations, like paper towels, toilet paper, even lawnmowers. We get them new TVs, furniture, washing machines and replace broken items plus we replace old or broken equipment on the engines and trucks. It’s a lot like doing the upkeep in your own home.”

Speaking of our home, Jones has been married to husband Kenny Jones for 24 years. From 1979-82 he played for the UT Vols football team (#99) and was drafted into the NFL by the Kansas City Chiefs. Today he works at Green Mountain Coffee.

They have a son, Kalen, 22, who works at KUB. He played football at Austin-East High School and was a walk-on at East Tennessee State University. She has a stepson, Kenneth, in Portsmouth, Virginia, “where my two precious grandsons live” – Keanu, 2, and Kai, 1.

The family worships at the Greater Warner AME Zion Church. She loves to spend time with the family, go on “girls’ trips” with her friends and read author James Patterson’s mysteries.

So, what makes Chief Jones tick and be so effective in her life?

“Carla is happy. I am a Christian woman, which makes me so happy. I’ve never come to work in a bad mood. I begin my day, every day, praying. You can call me captain or chief, but the best title I will ever have is mom.

“I love my job and there is not one day when I’ve not wanted to come to work. I’m very compassionate and my heart is with the homeless. I love sports, especially football. I know I’m the first black assistant chief but we really should not be having those kinds of firsts today. Chief Sharpe has put a lot of faith in me and I work every day to live up to his expectations. I also joke around with the best of ’em and I make sure I get them first.”