Former Hennepin County judge pushes for historic designation for fire station that opened with an all-Black fire crew in 1907

Until recently, hardly anyone knew that an aging building on Hiawatha Avenue in south Minneapolis was once a fire station that housed an all-Black fire crew, a reflection of segregation in the early 1900s.

But the story of Station 24 and the controversy that surrounded its opening has emerged because of the intervention of former Hennepin County District Judge LaJune Lange, who is worried the 113-year-old former fire hall could be torn down. She’s launched a campaign to have the city designate it as a historic site.

“I want it to be a historical landmark so the early history of African American people can be identified and preserved,” Lange said.

Bryan Tyner, who on Friday became Minneapolis’ second Black fire chief, said he was writing a letter to support Lange’s efforts.

“It would be great if it had historical designation,” he said. “It holds a special place in the history of the Minneapolis Fire Department.”

But they could face hurdles. John Bean, owner of the former station at 4501 Hiawatha Av., expressed ambivalence. While “the historical significance is a great thing,” he said, having such a designation “handcuffs me from doing anything with the building.”

Lange, who only recently learned where the fire hall was located, spotted an adjacent construction project while driving past the building two weeks ago and feared it might be razed. She contacted City Council members and has gained support for having it historically designated.

It turns out the building doesn’t face imminent demolition, though that was a possibility in 2018 when RS Eden bought the adjacent property to build 80 low-income rental housing units.

The “original hope was to make [the former fire hall] a part of the project,” said Caroline E.R. Hood, president and CEO of RS Eden. Bean said he was prepared to sell it.

But a report from the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department said the building meets one of the local criteria for being “determined to be a historic resource,” requiring a hearing of the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission before being demolished. Facing deadlines and noting the building’s historical value, RS Eden abandoned plans to buy it.

Bean now rents it to Adventures in Cardboard, whose director, Julian McFaul, provided Lange with a tour last week. The firefighters’ wood lockers remain, as does a round section in the first floor ceiling where the fire pole once stood. There’s a shed next door where horses that pulled the fire wagons may have been kept.

A ‘perplexing problem’

The fire station was built in 1907 and Fire Chief J.R. Canterbury assigned three Black firefighters to it. One was John Cheatham, according to Sue Hunter Weir, who heads a preservation committee for the Minneapolis Pioneers and Soldiers Memorial Cemetery. Weir wrote an article about Cheatham for the local Alley newspaper in 2006.

Cheatham was born a slave in St. Louis in 1855 and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, she wrote. Shortly afterward his family moved to Minneapolis.

“Although the records aren’t entirely clear, Mr. Cheatham was, if not the first African American firefighter in Minneapolis, certainly one of the earliest,” she wrote. He was promoted to captain in 1899.

The two other Black firefighters were Frank Harris and Lafayette Mason, Weir wrote. Harris was working at the station in 1910, but no records can be found on Mason.

After Canterbury assigned the all-Black crew, a man named Thomas Walsh presented a petition to the City Council opposing it. His reasoning reflected hurtful racist stereotypes.

Walsh “said the streets near the firehouse are poorly lighted and are not patrolled by the police,” the Minneapolis Tribune reported. “This, he said, made it bad where there are so many factory girls and women who have to walk up these dark lanes at night.”

Canterbury responded, according to the version in the Minneapolis Journal, that “white and colored firemen won’t mix.”

The Tribune quoted Canterbury at length: “No white men will wash in the same bowl and sleep in the same beds with the colored men, so I thought a step could be taken in the right direction by placing the colored station by themselves.” He added “that with the development of the city it was absolutely necessary to find places for a few colored firemen in the department.”

“What are we going to do with them?” the chief asked. “They must be provided for. This is the most perplexing problem.”

Some council members said “it was an affront to the colored members of the force who are being credited with being first rate men to segregate them to one station,” the Journal noted.

Other citizens came to the Black firefighters’ defense a few weeks later, according to the Tribune.

“There are at least sixty women living in the vicinity of the new fire station in the Twelfth Ward who are standing by the colored firemen on duty there,” the paper reported. “Yesterday afternoon a petition was presented at the meeting of the fire committee signed by the women in which they voiced their disapproval of the agitation over the installation of colored firemen at the station.”

No records or accounts could be located as to what happened next. But with the help of Joseph Waters, a board member of the Firefighters Hall and Museum in northeast Minneapolis, the Star Tribune found that in 1910 there were four firefighters at the station, all of them Black, including James R. Cannon and Archie Van Spence as well as Cheatham and Harris. Two years later the station had three Blacks and a lieutenant who apparently was white.

Confronting the past

Station 24 was the last station to use horses and the last to get motorized fire apparatus, Richard Heath wrote in his book, “Mill City Firefighters.” In 1941, the building was closed, he wrote.

By the mid-1940s, the city had no Black firefighters. The department remained all white until 1971, when U.S. District Judge Earl Larson ordered it desegregated.

Today the Minneapolis African American Professional Fire Fighters Association has about 80 members, said Charles Rucker, group president.

Council Member Andrew Johnson, whose 12th Ward includes the old firehouse, said he supports starting the historic designation process. And Council Vice President Andrea Jenkins said she favors the designation.

“It is important to acknowledge that African Americans have always contributed to the health and safety of Minneapolis,” Jenkins said, “but it’s also important to note that even when serving the community, segregation and racism was in place. We need to confront our past so we can move forward into the future.”

 

Staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this report.