Arnett “The Rookie” Hartsfield was a pioneer and legend in the fire service. In the 1940s Hartsfield joined the Los Angeles Fire Department after several years in the Army. While Firefighting he used his GI Bill to go back to school. He attended both UCLA and USC. Hartsfield excelled and attained two degrees. He later continued at USC Law School and successfully passed. “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 said.
With prestigious college degrees, he was still denied promotions in the fire department. Before firehouses were integrated in 1956, Arnett worked at Station 30 in 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 me being a Lieutenant.”
After the army, Arnett challenged the facts about what 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 was there ten hours a week volunteering and touching the lives of all who met him.