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 Learn more about KFD at KnoxvilleTN.gov/KFD

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.