• Allison Whittenberg

Two Fires: The Story of Isaac Jacobs

Photo Source:Flickr

(Pictured: Philidelphia mural honoring Engine #11 and W.E.B. Du Bois)

Everyone has a story; mine is filled with fire. A fire that came too early, yet flamed nonetheless.

It’s the middle of the 1800s. My name is Isaac Jacobs.

All my life, I had a burning desire inside me.

I wanted to steer the big truck and slide down the smooth pole and protect the row homes, the apartment buildings, and the factories of the city. My city. The city of brotherly love. I wanted to rescue a kitten from a tree and teach school children about safety. I wanted to march in the annual parade, waving to the crowd.

And I wanted to hear that phrase from my comrades, “Job well done.”

But I was born at a time when many were against me and people like me.

A black man in a uniform was more than some could bear.

Back then, black people were excluded. We didn’t have the opportunity to protect our neighbors from fire.

So what did I do? Did I let my dreams disappear like a thin stream of smoke?

No. No matter how tightly that door was sealed shut, I had to bust it open. I had to force my way in.

My imagination grew bigger and bigger. I applied, then reapplied, and went back to the station and reapplied, again.

I would not let them splash cold water on my hopes.

April 13, 1886, I was appointed to Engine 11 -- hired as my city’s first black firefighter.

I snapped the red suspenders and put on the boots and gloves. At last, I was given the chance.

I was strong.

I was agile.

I was brave.

I was ready to keep the city safe.

But when the fire bell rang, they sent me to the stable to pull in the horses. I ran and rounded them up. I hooked them to the engine and watched my coworkers file out and go to the fire.

Fire breathes. It moves. It dances and sings. It’s a living thing. But I wasn’t allowed to fight it…

I had to stay behind. I had to remember my place.

If only…

If only I could have lived deep into the 20th century. That’s when the city officially desegregated.

I could have tasted all that it meant to be a full citizen.

I could have forged real bonds.

I could have seen everyone at the station working together as brothers, no matter the color.

I would have seen many people of color rise through the ranks and be appointed supervisors, chiefs, and even fire commissioners.

As a pioneer, I was never able to rise. I stayed at my initial appointment. I never knew equal rights or integration. But, at least, I made it through the door.

I was part of the team.

I served for nearly five years, until 1891.

History is filled with smoke -- it’s often unclear.

Since I never got to fight the red devil, some list me as a horseman and not a firefighter. But I was hired. I signed in, the number 111 was on my helmet. My annual salary was $750.00.

And that is how my story played out, between two fires.

One colored angry, yellow red.

The other, just as threatening. That thick invisible line between black and white.


At the firehouse (moved now to 6th and South Street), a mural was designed to commemorate the historic Engine 11 and its African American contribution.

A picture of Isaac Jacobs is also proudly displayed at Philadelphia’s Fireman’s Hall.

Allison Whittenberg is a poet and novelist (LIFE IS FINE, SWEET THANG, HOLLYWOOD AND MAINE, TUTORED all from Random House . She lives in Philadelphia.