San Francisco to name street after first Black firefighter, a Catholic convert

Earl Gage Jr. in an undated photo from the San Francisco Independent newspaper. Photo courtesy of Blondell Chism via Catholic San Francisco.

San Francisco’s first Black firefighter, a Catholic convert whose faith helped him endure years of racial abuse within the department, will have a city street named after him.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously June 14 to name a portion of Willow Street between Buchanan and Laguna after Earl Gage Jr.  The street runs through the Western Addition neighbourhood of the city where the Gage family — longtime St. Emydius parishioners — lived.

“He was a man who kept his strong faith,” his daughter Blondell Chism told Catholic San Francisco July 24.  “No matter what happened, all was good and he was blessed.”

Gage converted to Catholicism to marry his Catholic wife, also named Blondell.

While the Department of Public Works readies the new street sign for an as-yet-unscheduled installation date, San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston has commissioned a mural of Gage to accompany it.

Gage was hired by the San Francisco Fire Department in 1955 at age 28 and was the sole Black firefighter for the next 12 years. He retired in 1983 and died in 2017 at age 90.

His hire was a progressive move for the times and not embraced by all members of the department, said Sherman Tillman, president of the Black Firefighters Association.

There were the fellow firefighters who refused to sleep on any mattress Gage had occupied in the communal firehouse, he said.
His mattress was urinated on so repeatedly that the young firefighter took to carrying his own with him from station to station.

“When you think about the discrimination he saw toward himself you’d think a person would be disillusioned and hateful toward the people who did those things,” said Tillman, a longtime parishioner of Star of the Sea Parish on Geary Blvd. “He wasn’t.”

Threats to his safety eventually led Gage away from field work and to a role as the SFFD’s director of community services. There he helped create a new training course for the firefighter’s exam after seeing it was a hurdle for many aspiring firefighters. He was also part of a federal court consent degree that pushed for diversity in the predominantly white, male department.

Tillman called Gage a “man of God who tried to see the best in people despite their flaws.”

It was at his funeral that Tillman decided to petition the city to recognize his character and place in history — a mission that took three years to bring to fruition. Coincidence or not, the sign was approved just weeks after the killing of George Floyd in May by a Minneapolis police officer who kneeled on the 46-year-old Black man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds during an arrest for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill.

Tillman said racial diversity in the SFFD is still aspirational almost 70 years after Gage became the city’s first Black firefighter.

“Right now we are at 156 (Black firefighters) in San Francisco, down from 193,” he said. “We haven’t been this low since the early 1990s.”

The SFFD has approximately 1,500 members.

As civil servants, Black firefighters receive the same pay as other local firefighters of their rank, said Tillman. But few African Americans are appointed to higher ranking positions all around the country.

“There is a handful of people in the fire department who want to hold on to the power,” he said, not just in San Francisco but in all big city fire departments.

At one time there were 16 African American fire chiefs, said Tillman. Now there are six. With anticipated retirements in the next three years there will only be only one.

Blondell Gage said her father wanted to be just another firefighter who happened to be black, not a “Black firefighter.”

He did not consider himself an activist, she said, nor was he in favour of protests.

“I think that being said, he stood his ground for 12 years and kept pushing,” she said.

Author – Christina Gray

Reprinted with kind permission from Catholic San Francisco.

Catholic San Francisco is the official news organization of the Archdiocese of San Francisco