Fire captain, civil rights activist
Roosevelt Barlow was among a small group of African-American firefighters to integrate the Philadelphia Fire Department, enduring extremely harsh treatment and fighting against entrenched institutional racism. He risked his life to help his brothers in the department and to help his community become a better place for all minorities. Barlow was among the first African Americans in the department to be promoted to lieutenant and captain, and his work is known by many throughout the city, even being mentioned in the Fireman's Hall Museum in Philadelphia. He is a key figure in the story of integration in the city and came to be loved by many for his dedication and caring.
Barlow was born on October 13, 1917, in Sandersville, Georgia, the eldest child of Eldridge and Lucy Barlow. "My mother-in-law was the sweetest woman and my father-in-law was lovable," Barlow's widow, Virginia, said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB ). "My husband got a lot of his traits from his father." The family moved to Philadelphia when Barlow was very young. Central Philadelphia was a rough place to grow up in at that time, and although the schools were integrated, often a black child would find himself alone in an all-white classroom. There Barlow met Virginia, who would become his high school sweetheart, at Simon Gratz High. He graduated in 1937 and married Virginia in 1938. The couple was blessed with a son, Raymond, and would spend 65 years together before Barlow passed away in 2003.
During high school Barlow took a job as a busboy and short order cook. But he really wanted to become a firefighter. Upon graduation he decided to test for both the fire and the police departments. When the fire department called, Barlow began work at Engine 11 (E-11), an all black station known among firefighters as the Jim Crow Station. In the early 1940s, black firemen could only work there or on the fireboat. Barlow and his co-workers suffered degrading insults and appalling treatment from whites in the department. There was some solace in the fact that their boss was an African American. "Jim Davis, the first black fire captain in Philadelphia, was tough but he taught his men well and that's when black firefighters started progressing," Virginia Barlow told CBB. The men believed in him.
"The department was integrating in 1952 and as black firefighters moved into white fire houses many whites did not like sharing living quarters with them," said Lt. Claude Smith, Barlow's good friend and president of Club Valiants, an international organization of black firefighters the two men helped to found. The nature of the work required that the men live together. Some white firemen had no trouble making blacks feel unwelcome. Black firemen were not allowed to use the same restrooms as whites, and whites would break dishes that the black men used. Once, Barlow was given a horse blanket to sleep on instead of a bed at one of the white stations. But Barlow fought discrimination where he found it and stood his ground. In later years he would find some of the memories too difficult to talk about. Even though the black firefighters' job was to help save homes and lives, sometimes the very people they tried to help were the one's who shunned them. In 1952 Barlow became a lieutenant, a well-earned promotion for a man known among his peers for speaking out against bias. In 1961 Barlow became one of the first black captains in the department.
Facing bias through the years Barlow knew personally the obstacles black firefighters would face as more joined the department, and he knew they needed to work together to fight racism. Barlow and a group of fellow firemen from E-11 and Fire Boat #1 began plans to create Club Valiants to fight the battle together. The organization would be vital to their survival as they were split from their comrades to move out across the city in the name of integration. The men had found themselves being mistreated and sometimes ignored at other stations. Club Valiants would create a fellowship and source of information for black firefighters and eventually began to counsel its members, donate to charities, and set out to educate the community about fire prevention. As promotions and hiring practices were scrutinized by the city it was determined that bias did exist and a class action suit was brought against the department. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped but did not allow discrimination cases to be brought against a city department, and many blacks felt that the department practiced discrimination openly. Despite these obstacles, the Valiants' work eventually paid off and many more minority members were hired and promoted as a result. Club Valiants would later become the founding chapter of a larger national group. In 1970 firefighters from stations across the country met in Hartford, Connecticut, to form the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters to help other blacks get hired, to fight discrimination, to foster promotions, and to support the dissemination of information about their work.
Conditions did change as Virginia Barlow recalled, "The people that he worked with soon found out that my husband was nothing to play with. But they also learned that people could get along regardless of who they were. He was a very kind man and believed in doing right. People found he was earnest in everything he did. They came to love him. Even today I meet people and they tell me he was well liked."
Barlow extended his kindness and concern for a life without discrimination beyond his vocation. He was active with Fellowship Farms, a non-profit, human relations group which helps educate the community about diversity. The group set up the Roosevelt Barlow Scholarship Fund to honor his work and to help disadvantaged kids.
Barlow was also a member of the National Organization of Concerned Black Men, a group dedicated to helping the disadvantaged with problems such as teen pregnancy, HIV, and substance abuse. The group offers many services, including tutoring and mentoring to young people. In addition Barlow was a board member, for more than 20 years, of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, a youth mentoring program.
Barlow retired from the fire department in 1968. He worked for more years, however, as a human resources specialist at a local hospital. In his spare time he listened to jazz and classical music, a testament to the nature of this gentle and intelligent man who is remembered and loved by many in Philadelphia. Being an avid reader, he loved history, and indeed now he is a part of history.
At a Glance …
Born Roosevelt Barlow on October 13, 1917, in Sandersville, GA; died on July 14, 2003; married Virginia Poole, 1938; children: Raymond. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Philadelphia Fire Department, Philadelphia, PA, firefighter, lieutenant, captain, 1940-68.
Memberships: Club Valiants, Inc., founding member; National Organization of Concerned Black Men Inc., member; Fellowship Farms, member; Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, member.
Awards: Big Brother Big Sister Association of Philadelphia, Charles Edwin Fox Memorial Service Award, 1983.
"The Roosevelt Barlow Scholarship Fund," Fellowship Farm, www.fellowshipfarm.org/memorial.htm (November 18, 2004).
"History," Club Valiants, Inc., www.clubvaliants.org (November 18, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Mrs. Virginia Barlow on October 30, 2004, and an interview with Lt. Claude Smith on November 4, 2004.
—Sharon Melson Fletcher
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