This article appears in the May/June 2015 edition of 60-Plus.
Marvin Ervin knows his history. When I first met him at a Hot Shops exhibit in 2012, he carried a black folder brimming with photographs and old documents under his arm. “I keep my history around with me,” he said with a grin.
Ervin had worked on a display of his collection that details the story of Omaha’s first African American fire crew. Established in 1895, it was not the first black-only crew in the country (though it was among them), but it was the first to succeed. Its founding is a story of a great orator and a community willing to stand up for what it needed—it’s a proud history that Ervin wants remembered.
Now retired, Ervin was as a longtime fire captain in the Omaha Fire Department. He grew up in segregated South Carolina where he saw the country’s tense racial history unfold first-hand. (His high school class in Anderson was one of the last to be integrated.) In Omaha, he started digging into this city’s racial history, and after years gathering documents by word-of-mouth and scouring old newspapers and tattered photographs, he has built up a small treasure trove. It’s currently exhibited as a portable display, and Ervin, along with the Omaha Black Firefighter Phoenix Foundation, is in talks with Great Plains Black History Museum to find a permanent home.
The story Ervin has accounted begins with his favorite character: Dr. Matthew Oliver Ricketts. Nebraska’s first African-American state senator, Ricketts was born to enslaved parents in Kentucky. After moving to Omaha, he became one of the first African Americans admitted to Omaha Medical College, and in 1892, he was elected to the state legislature, where he served two terms. In a handbook published in 1895, Ricketts was described as “one of the best speakers in the house” and
a “ready debater.”
“What really amazed me about him was they were talking about his oratory skills,” Ervin says. “He was probably one of the top legislators in the state of Nebraska at the time. He came from slavery, educated himself, and then [became] the best at what he did.”
Ricketts made his mark in the legislature. He was instrumental in Nebraska passing a civil rights statute in 1893 (even while the South set up Jim Crow laws) that prohibited discrimination and provided “equal privilege” to all Nebraskans. When he petitioned the state to establish an all-black fire crew, the community rallied behind him. “The African-American community back in 1895 had enough…power that they could go and petition the city and…get black firefighters hired,” Ervin says. “They had businesses and homes, and they wanted some protection.”
The Omaha Negro Fire Department Company moved into its new fire station at 27th and Jones streets in 1895. Other cities had hired black crews, but they didn’t last. Omaha’s succeeded until it was officially integrated in 1956. But the men had to work by different rules. The black fire crew was always the first to arrive and the last to leave. The men had to clean their own equipment and that of all the other stations. And sometimes, they had to stand outside while a building burned. Some white patrons didn’t want black firefighters to enter their homes, so they had to fight the fire from outside until the white crews arrived.
When Ervin joined the fire department in 1992, he could still feel the impact of its history. He was 38 years old at the time; he had 20 years of military experience, a bachelor’s degree, an EMT certification; he scored well on written tests and passed the physicals. But he was still an affirmative action hire. And he was often the only black firefighter in the station.
But being able to place his experiences in the context of history encouraged him to get past them. “Even the small things that happened to me, I could kind of laugh at it and move on,” Ervin says, “because of what I know those guys had to put up with before me to get me to where I got to be.
“There’s nothing like learning your own history.”