Arnett Hartsfield Jr. made it perfectly clear that he never led a fight against the Department. His fight was only against segregation. He believed that the Department was a great organization. He just wanted to be a full member of that organization.
When Hartsfield came on the job in 1940, black firemen could only work at two stations on Central Ave. He wanted to make the fire department his lifelong career but soon realized that the existing system was blocking him from promotion. With all the positions in the black companies filled, he had no place to go. He knew the only real solution was integration.
So he went back to school and earned a law degree from USC. He used his knowledge to become a civil rights pioneer and lead the battle for desegregation of the LAFD in the mid 1950’s. Later he was a professor at Cal State Long Beach and a legal advisor to the Compton Police Department. He was also a founder of the African American Firefighters Museum, located in the old quarters of a segregated firehouse in South Los Angeles where he was stationed in the 1940s and early ’50s.
Hartsfield was born in Bellingham, Wash., on June 14, 1918. He grew up in an interracial family as the grandson of a white Irish Canadian and a black woman who had left slavery. The only black people he knew growing up were his relatives.
Until his family moved to California in 1929, “I never had a black neighbor or a colored kid in my class. I had no racial hostility at all,” he recalled in a 2009 interview for the California Firefighters History Project.
He graduated from Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles and worked in construction before joining the Department. He was on duty at Station 30, one of the city’s two all-black stations, when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941. Because he had been in the ROTC, he was commissioned as an Army infantry lieutenant but served in a segregated unit.
Bolstered by Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision against school segregation, Hartsfield and some 30 other black firefighters formed the Stentorians — a Greek term for those who speak out — that year. Later he authored “The Old Stentorians,” a history of the Fire Department’s integration.
In 2010, he received the Fire Department’s first Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Douglas Barry, the department’s first African American chief.
Arnett Hartsfield died on October 31st of natural causes. Although he endured much pain and prejudice in his 96 years, he always tried to look at every experience with a positive attitude. He would often say, “I’ve been enjoying a pension for more than 50 years and now it’s paying me more than ten times as many dollars as when it started.”
By Dave Wagner
Color photos by Robert Gladden & Yvonne Griffin