Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Royal Towns (1899-1990): Helped integrate Oakland Fire Department

Royal Towns as a child and as a member of the Oakland Fire Department
Plot 54, Grave 1915

Towns was born in Oakland in 1899, and when denied union membership in his factory job because of his race, went to work as a railroad porter. 

In 1919 the city of Oakland began seeking and testing African Americans applicants to serve as firefighters for a segregated unit of the Oakland Fire Department. In 1925, the first all-African American firehouse 22 Engine opened in West Oakland at 3230 Magnolia Street. Towns joined the Oakland Fire Department in 1927 and was assigned to Engine Company No. 22. He was the city's eleventh black firefighter.

After data that he compiled showed that African-Americans were being promoted in other cities and not Oakland, Towns became the first to be promoted with the Oakland Fire Department. He eventually became a chief's operator and eventually retired as a lieutenant in 1962.

He helped recruit African American firefighters and conducted classes to help them study for the fire-fighting exam. His recruitment efforts resulted in 25 African American fire fighters being hired.

After his retirement, he became interested in his family genealogy and black history. He traced his roots on his paternal side to his grandfather's departure from Jamaica just two years after slavery was banned in the West Indies. He traced his maternal roots back to Charles Humphrey Scott in 1822, a Kentucky slave who bought his freedom and moved to New Orleans. 

He was interviewed by the Oakland Tribune about his family history and also co-convened a group of "West Oakland pals" who got together annually to reminisce.

Sources: Find a Grave, Oakland Library, Oakland Wiki, Oakland Tribune (Feb 6, 1977)

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