The District of Columbia Fire Department was officially organized on September 23, 1871, although several neighborhoods had volunteer and paid crews prior to that date. These began with a fund raiser held in 1789 to purchase a hand pumping engine and buckets for the Georgetown community. Fire Station No. 4 at 931 R Street, NW was built between 1884 and 1885, and later became notable as an all-black engine company.
Fire Station No. 4 at 931 R Street became the first all-black fire fighting company in Washington on April 3, 1919. Prior to the forming of this company, the fire department had been racially integrated, but it was difficult for blacks to pass arbitrary and impromptu physicals and exams sprung by white leaders effectively preventing them from advancing ranks within the Department. The request for the all-black company was instituted by one of the four black firefighters working for the city at the time who apparently believed that his only opportunity for advancement was within an all-black unit.
In January of 1943, Gordon Parks photographed the fire company at Station No. 4, recording their daily activities and routines, seen here. He included pictures of Lt. Mills and Captain J.B. Keyes, and other crew members. Parks followed them to calls and fires, including one in front of the Mid-City Theater in the 1200 block of 7th Street, built in 1913.
The Department was integrated again in the early 1960s, but advancement for blacks remained difficult, often conflicting with a multiple generation immigrant population. Following the 1968 riots, however, an aggressive recruiting campaign resulted in a more racially balanced department. Washington, DC had its first black fire chief appointed in 1973. Fire Station No. 4 was later changed to Fire Station No. 7, but is today a private artist studio and residence.