In 1937, Ms. Mary Jane Wilson, “Pioneer Negro Teacher of Portsmouth, Virginia,” reflects on her life…
Guest post by Vivian Nicholson-Mueller
My parents divorced when I was 5 years old, and when my father left the family he took all his family history with him. I knew nothing about the Nicholson side of my family — just that we carried his name. It was not until many decades later that I got an inkling that I might be related to the first black man who joined the New York City Fire Department — and it came about because of the lawsuit brought against the city by the Vulcan Society, the association of black firefighters.
Now knowing the names of my great grandparents I went to the NYC archives and found their death certificates. William’s death certificate listed “fireman” as his profession, but this time he was noted as “Fireman NYFD.” I was intrigued. Could it possibly be true?
When my brother read the article to me I had the confirmation I needed. Mining information from Ancestry.com I found: William H. Nicholson, Jr., born in 1869 in Portsmouth, Virginia. His father was William H. Nicholson Sr., born in Enfield, North Carolina. His mother Katherine, born in Portsmouth, was a Hodges. Her father was John Hodges, who had served in the Navy during the Civil War, and her mother, Martha Jordan, was descended from the Edenton, North Carolina Jordans. They were members of the North Street Emanuel AME Church, and along with other Nicholsons, Hodges, and Jordans, were interred in Mt Olive Cemetery in Portsmouth.
In 1885, William enlisted in the Navy and served on the USS Pensacola. He was only 15 at the time, but lied saying he was 19. According to census information, he moved to Brooklyn in 1887. In January of 1889, William again served in the Navy, again as a “waiter.” He later worked as a messenger and cement tester. On October 9, 1889, he married Irene Howard (my Great-Grandma Nicky), whose family could trace its lineage back to Colonial Long Island, New York free people of colour and Sellacott and Montaukett Indians. Married into a solid middle class and influential New York family, and being related to the Virginian and New York Hodges, he was politically connected to the Republican party. On November 9, 1898 with the backing of Republican party bigwigs and a white high ranking Fire Department chief, he began his fireman’s instruction at the Brooklyn Fire Department School. He had previously taken the written fireman’s test and, according to an article in the November 13, 1898 issue of The New York Press, passed with a score which was “one of the highest in percentage on the list.” The article also noted “There is no law to deprive his race from the right of such an appointment, but Nicholson is the first colored man to successfully pass the examinations.” William completed his training on December 9, 1898 and in 1900 and 1910 he could proudly list his profession as “fireman.”
Finding no information about my great-grandfather in NYFD records, I turned to the New York Public Library, and was directed to Harlem’s Schomburg Library. When I realized there was an entire collection dedicated to the Vulcan Society and the city’s earliest black firefighters, my heart skipped with excitement. Would I find something about my great-grandfather there? Indeed I did!
I found a treasure trove of information about the late 19th Century and early 20th Century fire department. Documents compiled by former Fire Commissioner Robert Lowery, the 1st black fire commissioner, indicating that my great-grandfather, William H. Nicholson, had become, in 1898, the first “coloured” man hired by the NYC Fire Department!
First Colored Fireman in This City – Fire Commissioner Scannell has appointed twenty-one new fireman on probation, for duty in the Borough of Brooklyn. W. H. Nicholson, one of the men, is colored. He has the distinction of being the first colored fireman in the department. The Commissioner found his name on the eligible list of Brooklyn, and thought he had a right to an appointment. Nicholson, who lives at 200 Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn, has been assigned to Engine Company 6.
I also found evidence that although William had one of the highest scores on the city test and had successfully finished his training, he was immediately rejected by his “fellow” firefighters in Brooklyn Engine Co 6. Upon his assignment, the captain quit and many others threatened to do so. The solution: send him to the Manhattan Veterinary Unit to care for the horses – since he showed “a natural ability” to handle them.
To my delight and profound sadness I found an 1898 Brooklyn Engine Co 6 journal that covered the first year of William’s service. It detailed how he reported day after day in full uniform – when he was finally given one – only to be sent “to Manhattan”. There is no evidence that William ever fought a fire. He may have done so on the 4th of July when all firefighters were called to duty. But my great-grandfather continued to report for duty for 13 years – until his very early death, on January 21, 1912, at the age of 42. The cause of death was heart trouble and asthma. And when he died he was not listed in the 1912 memorial brochure issued by the NYFD. He was simply and purposely ignored and then forgotten. And he would have remained so if not for the Vulcan Society suit, the Schomburg and Ginger Adams Otis, a New York Daily News reporter who wrote the book Firefight. Ginger and I are determined to have a plaque put on William’s grave to honour his achievements.
William Henry Nicholson, aged 43 years, the only colored fireman of this borough, died at his residence, 163 Fort Greene place yesterday. Mr. Nicholson was born at Portsmouth, Va., and was one of five sons and daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Nicholson of Portsmouth, Va. He was educated in the schools of Portsmouth and joined the North Street A. M. E. Church of that city in 1885. He had been a resident of Brooklyn for nearly twenty-three years and served as a fireman for fourte(e)n years. On January 1, of this year, he was retired as a fireman on annuity of $700, owing to ill health. While a fireman he was attached to the headquarters department on Jay street. A few years ago he, with many others united with Bridge Street African M. E. Church. The funeral services will be at Bridge Street African M. E. Church tomorrow evening, at 8 o’clock. Mr. Nicholson is survived by his widow, two sons, Clarence and Frederick Howard; his parents, a sister, Mrs. Fannie Ash, and two brothers.”
When I was a little girl, being a great fan of Nancy Drew and Elliott Ness, I wanted to be a “FBI Man.” I was told, on a 6th grade class trip to Washington, on our visit to The FBI Building, that “girls aren’t allowed to be FBI agents.” I was devastated, to say the least. I cannot help but wonder if I had known what my Great-Grandfather William H. Nicholson had achieved in his life, against all odds, enduring abject prejudice and rejection, I would have indeed achieved my dream of becoming a member of the FBI. – Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, New York
On January 24, 1912, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that William Henry Nicholson had been laid to rest in Brooklyn’s The Evergreens Cemetery. Members of the Society of the Sons of Virginia, and William’s sister, Fannie Franklin Nicholson Ash, a teacher in Portsmouth, Va., attended the funeral services at Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, once a station on the Underground Railroad. “First Colored Fireman Dead,” read the headline of William’s obituary in the January 25, 1912 edition of The New York Age. Discriminated against in life, and nearly forgotten for over a century after his death, William’s story is finally being told. The author of our guest post, William’s great-granddaughter Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, was profiled about her discoveries in a recent article for the New York Daily News, and the book by journalist Ginger Adams Otis, Firefight: The Century Long Battle to Integrate NY’s Bravest, was released earlier this year. ♠
Thomas Craig. So reads the name on the faded and sunken headstone of military issue in Mount Olive Cemetery, one of the oldest African-American cemeteries in Portsmouth, Virginia. Part of the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex (Fisher’s Hill) (est. 1879), I first noticed Thomas Craig’s gravestone in Mt. Olive on a humid July 4th holiday weekend in 2007, searching for ancestral grave sites with my family. Not being aware of any known map, we walked the entire cemetery, and in doing so, passed the Craig gravestone several times. At the time, my focus was on finding any and all headstones with the name “Orton.” My paternal ancestry stretches back to 1690 in the Tidewater area of Virginia. My grand-aunt, Philgrador Rachel Orton Duke, was concerned about the lasting legacy of our family line. Born in 1923 in a home on Griffin Street, she was a life-time Portsmouth resident. Before her passing in March of 2007, she called my father and other relatives to her bedside in Maryview Hospital, with the admonition “do not let our history die.” Hearing that call, I concentrated fully on researching the paternal side of my family tree. I’d dabbled in genealogy since 2001, but now I had a mission. This was my grand-aunt’s last wish. Honoring this wish led us to the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex.
With further research, I discovered that our ancestors had visited and tended to family plots from some of the first burials performed in the early 1880s through to the early 1940s. However, elders that live in and around Portsmouth informed me that by the late 1940s, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex was about full, and the then existing owner allowed it to become overgrown in the decades that followed. By 1960, the cemetery complex was nearly impassable, and was closed by the city soon thereafter. Trees, vines, poison ivy, and trash came to dominate what was once the premier burial ground and one of the earliest institutions of Portsmouth’s African American community (Portsmouth cemeteries were segregated until 1975). Visitation had largely ceased, and calls for its care and restoration by the Portsmouth branch of the NAACP, pastors, lodges, and various civic groups went unheeded. With Lincoln Memorial cemetery (1912), and the graveyards of Grove Baptist and Olive Branch Church (and eventually, Greenlawn Memorial Gardens in Chesapeake) becoming the primary cemeteries of Portsmouth’s black community, the Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex fell into shadow, a forgotten area of the old city.