Stories of Our Brooklyn Firefighters

Brooklyn Historical Society has partnered with over a dozen Brooklyn schools in the past decade to implement Cultural Afterschool Adventures (CASA) programs in partnership with NYC Council Members. In the Young Scholars program, our educators meet with a group of upper elementary school students over the course of the spring semester, culminating in the creation of a book on a pre-selected theme. These books are then distributed to students, their families, and their schools. A copy of the student work is added to the Othmer Library & Archives, memorializing the student work for generations to come. If you’re interested in viewing the book discussed below, you can visit the Othmer Library during its public hours.

Here, Program Educator Nick Hubbard reflects on the process:

A PS 158 Young Scholar researching the fire department.

A PS 158 Young Scholar researching the fire department.

The goal was to work with students to write a history of the Brooklyn Fire Department (BFD).  When I stepped into Ms. Carla Jennings’ classroom at Public School 158 Warwick on Ashford Street, I came equipped with my own understanding of the BFD’s history, but I was unsure how to share it with this group of eager third and fourth grade students. Would they care about tales of “the old fire laddies”?  I had no idea what would interest them about this past that permeated their neighborhood, but wasn’t obvious on the surface (the well-respected foreman of Engine Co. 25, Michael Murray, lived a block away from the school in the mid-1800s.  Today, a new family calls Michael Murray’s house their home, and you can only find him in the pages of archival newspapers and histories).

The first time a few firefighters organized themselves in Brooklyn was 1772.  Over the next century, Brooklyn firefighting underwent a rapid transition, from ragtag groups of community volunteers, to dedicated companies of men that still maintained other jobs, to professionalization as an official city department.  On April 16, 1823, the State of New York passed an “Act to Incorporate the Firemen of the Village of Brooklyn.”  This was the beginning of an official, all-volunteer firefighting force.  About forty years later, on September 15, 1869, the state established a paid organization, The Brooklyn Fire Department (BFD).  It lasted as a Brooklyn-specific entity until 1898 when Brooklyn, the third largest city in America at the time, consolidated with Manhattan. Consolidation brought many things, including the formation of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), which protects all five boroughs today.

P.S. 158’s Young Scholars’ voracious appetite for historical knowledge steamrolled any concerns of mine about the relevance of the topic to contemporary students. They couldn’t get their hands on their notebooks fast enough and never stopped jotting down details about what they learned.

The Young Scholars of PS 158 at a research visit to the Othmer Library.

The Young Scholars of PS 158 at a research visit to the Othmer Library.

It was clear from the start that we would need to focus on the practical aspects of the life of firefighters. What exactly was it like to be a firefighter in the 19th century? We would also need to focus on the personal stories of the people who were doing this work. The Young Scholars at PS 158 Warwick dug into all the primary and secondary sources I could gather with ongoing excitement.  We examined many: newspaper articles, interviews with veteran firefighters, excerpts from histories written at the time, ledgers and roll books that listed the daily comings and goings of every single department member, and census records which showed a broader context for the life and work of the firefighters.

Writing this book was truly a community effort. Journalists and historians provided generous support to our project. Also, I was able to connect with descendants of some of the firefighters we were reading about. They were all enthusiastic and willing to share their family histories with us.  We had the special honor of visits from Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, the great-granddaughter of the Brooklyn Fire Department’s first and only black firefighter, William Henry Nicholson, and from Jackie-Michelle Martinez and Melissa Bennett, two firefighters of color in the FDNY.

You can view the Young Scholars of PS 158's work by visiting the Othmer Library during public hours.

You can view the Young Scholars of PS 158’s work by visiting the Othmer Library during public hours.

I’m so proud, and lucky, to have worked alongside these students as they composed Stories of Our Brooklyn Firefighters: Tales from Long Ago.  It is a distinct pleasure to share their story with you and I encourage you to read the book.

Nick Hubbard
Brooklyn Historical Society
PS 158 Young Scholars Program Educator

If you’d like to bring the Young Scholars program to your school in Brooklyn, e-mail us at education@brooklynhistory.org with “Young Scholars” in the subject line.

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