While firefighting, he used his GI Bill to go back to school and attend both UCLA and USC. “The Rookie” continued on to attend USC Law School and successfully passed the program. “I was the first person in the history of my family to graduate from high school and now I’ve got a degree from USC,” he explained.
Yet with prestigious college degrees, he was still denied promotions in the fire department. Before firehouses were integrated in 1955, Arnett worked at Station 30 in East Los Angeles, California. Arnett claimed that he was extremely ashamed and that he was not used to being segregated.
When firehouses became integrated, “The Rookie” claimed that he felt complete isolation. One white firefighter in particular refused to accept him. “You’ve got all of the advantages. You’ve got the NAACP, you’ve got the Urban League, you’ve got the Supreme Court,” expressed Arnett. “I says, ‘Hold it Bill. Tomorrow morning, when we get off-duty, come with me down to headquarters, tell them you’ve just discovered some black blood in your family tree. And you won’t even have to prove it. And you’ll have all of my advantages.’ You know, the next morning I couldn’t find that dude! And he never bothered me again!”
Looking back on his life, Hartsfield believes that segregation may be why he has lived to see his 90′s. Hartsfield said, “If the army had been integrated when I went in, I might have died at Normandy. Whatever company I was in, would have been in the first wave. Not only that, I might have been shot in the back by a white enlisted man who resented my being a Lieutenant.”
After the army, Arnett complained about the little compensation he received as a firefighter. He remarked that he could never save one hundred dollars to put in the credit union. Hartsfield said, “We had five children. Every time I’d get forty, fifty or sixty dollars, something would happen. Now, with three pensions, and interest, five thousand dollars goes into the credit union every month.”
Arnett reflected, “I realize that I have really been lucky. A puppies eyes can open in seven days, but because I was stupid, it took fifty years for my eyes to come open. Fifty years to realize that I was being blessed.” Although “The Rookie” was denied an opportunity to promote during his career as a firefighter, he finally did receive that promotion that he dreamed of when the Los Angeles Fire Department named him the Honorary Fire Chief for one day.
At age ninety-two, the “Eternal Rookie” Arnett Hartsfield says he has so much to smile about. As the African American Firefighter Museum’s historian, Arnett is there ten hours a week volunteering and touching the lives of all who meet him.
TWO MEN HONOR THE MEMORY OF A LONG-AGO FALLEN COMRADE, AND CARRY ON HIS LEGACY BY FIGHTING FOR RACIAL EQUALITY IN THE FIRE SERVICE.
Late 19th century Los Angeles was different than the city we know today. For one trailblazing man, it was a fledgling metropolis to which he dedicated himself, and bravely gave his life.
November 19, 2010 marked the one hundred and fifteen year anniversary of the death of the City of Los Angeles’ first firefighter killed in the line of duty. This man was Mr. Sam Haskins, an African American. Haskins’ sacrifice was forgotten for over a century, and not included in the list of line-of-duty deaths by the LAFD until 2002, when the details resurfaced. The Haskins story was reported in the Los Angeles Times by long time author and columnist Cecilia Rasmussen in November of 2002. As the 115th anniversary of Haskins’ death is a tremendous milestone, it is truly fitting to tell this moving story again.
Sam Haskins was a former slave. He was born in Virginia in February of 1846. In 1880, fifteen years after the civil war, as a free man, Haskins made the cross-country trek to Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Times, Haskins was joined by his good friend George Warner. The two men were formerly enslaved together in Virginia. Both came to Los Angeles in search of a new life. Fifteen years later, in 1895, Mr. Haskins made the ultimate sacrifice while protecting his beloved new home, the City of Los Angeles.
After Sam Haskins was killed in 1895, his story was forgotten for over a century.Though buried in full regalia by a cortege of the LAFD and dignitaries of the day (as described by the newspapers of the time), there was eventually no marker placed on his grave.
In 1895, no line-of-duty death list was kept by the LAFD. As the years went by, and Haskins’ contemporaries passed on, his story was almost lost to history.
Over a hundred years later, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Crime Analyst Joe Walker was in the County Registrar Recorder’s Office in Norwalk, California researching an unrelated case. Walker accidentally found recorded evidence and pieced together the tragic story of Sam Haskins’ death, and the location of Haskins’ grave.
Seeking justice for Haskins’ memory and sacrifice, Walker contacted Arnett Hartsfield. Hartsfield has been the African American Firefighters’ Historian in Los Angeles for nearly seven decades. Harstfield, now 92, is a seasoned veteran of the LAFD. He served as a LA City Firefighter from 1940 to 1961. He also had a career as a lawyer (USC Law, 1955), as a Professor of Ethnic Studies at Cal State Long Beach, as a Civil Service Commissioner under Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, and is best known for his dedicated work as an integration pioneer in the LAFD. Currently, he is retired, and is the volunteer Historian at the African American Firefighter Museum. The museum is housed in historic former LA City Fire Station No. 30. Station 30 is at Central Avenue and 14th Street in downtown L.A. Three times a week, Hartsfield greets visitors to the museum. He tells them, in great detail of the fight for integration in the LAFD. While humbly sitting in the station’s former dormitory, he shares archival photographs and stories with all who will listen. This is the very place Hartsfield came on duty with the LAFD, seventy years ago. Hartsfield was the subject of a recent article in the Los Angeles Times by reporter Bob Pool.
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