South Carolina: Harden Street Substation

B & W image of Black firefighters and thier white officer

John  Hensel Photograph Collection, South Carolinian Library, University of South Carolina

The Harden Street Substation (Harden Street Fire Station) is historically significant for its strong association with segregation in Columbia, South Carolina. It is an excellent example of the duplicative architecture often built to maintain institutional segregation. Its construction and the subsequent desegregation of the Columbia Fire Department were evidence of gradual racial change, the direct result of African American political organizing, civil rights litigation, and direct action protest throughout the 1940s and 1950s. The Harden Street Substation was built in 1953 to employ the Columbia Fire Department’s first African American firefighters to serve predominantly African American communities, Edgewood and Waverly. It was the only Columbia Fire Department substation to employ African American firefighters for fifteen years until the integration of the entire department in 1969. The Harden Street Substation, carefully maintained and well preserved, continues to serve the local community today and is a significant material representative of the duplication of services commonly utilized to maintain segregation in Columbia, South Carolina during the mid-twentieth century. The Department of the Interior lists the Harden Street Substation on the National Register under Criterion A in the area of history for its association with segregation in Columbia, South Carolina. This site is significant due to its central status as a site of racial conflict and change in South Carolina’s capital city, a precursor to the integration of the Columbia Fire Department and the city itself, and an example of the fruits of local African American civil rights activism and white resistance to such campaigns.

Founded in 1903, the Columbia Fire Department replaced African American and white volunteer companies that operated in the city during the previous century. Many volunteers joined the Columbia Fire Department as paid employees, and some African Americans served as drivers. In 1921, due to departmental racism and the shift to motorized vehicles, African American drivers were ousted. The only opportunities available to African Americans within the Columbia Fire Department were menial positions such as janitors. This loss of economic opportunity reflected the hardening of Jim Crow culture as African Americans were rendered second-class citizens in Columbia and other cities and towns in the American South. Segregation of the Columbia Fire
Department remained unchallenged for the next quarter-century.

Throughout the 1940s decade, African Americans in South Carolina organized a militant political organizing, civil rights litigation, and direct action protest movement to challenge segregation. Having fought for liberty in Europe and Asia, many Black veterans returned determined to obtain first class citizenship at home. One of these veterans was Clarence Mitchell, a resident of Columbia’s Waverly community. Waverly was a prominent African American neighborhood that contained two Historically Black colleges, two hospitals, a library, and a substantial number of businesses largely operated by Black proprietors who catered to nearby residents. Following discharge from military service in 1947, Mitchell passed the city’s civil service exam and applied for employment as a firefighter with the Columbia Fire Department. Department authorities rejected his application because there were no fire department substations for Blacks. In 1951, Mitchell complained to Columbia mayor Frank Owens, who arranged a meeting with the head of the Columbia Fire Department, Chief Archie Marsh. Chief Marsh told Mitchell that he could not hire him as long as the city had no substations exclusively for African Americans, and the issue was referred to Columbia’s city council, which took no action.

Unable to persuade city officials to act, Mitchell contacted Reverend James Hinton, the president of the Columbia chapter and State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Reverend Hinton approached the city council and the new mayor, J. Macfie Anderson, to persuade them to build a fire department substation for African Americans, or hire Black firefighters and integrate them into existing facilities. Reverend Hinton argued that the established doctrine of “separate but equal” required the city to provide substations for white and Black citizens. He pushed further noting that equalization of schools, colleges, and other facilities had been common practice in recent years. The Columbia city council and Mayor Anderson ignored Hinton’s pleas for six months. Frustrated by the stalemate, Reverend Hinton issued a formal notice to all parties of his intent to file a lawsuit on behalf of his client.

After funds were allocated for the construction of the Harden Street Fire Department, Reverend Hinton and Clarence Mitchell searched for African American men with sufficient education, physical strength, and temperament necessary to endure intense prejudice with restraint in order to become the city’s first professional Black firefighters. Mitchell and seven other men—Claude Stewart, Lewis Williams, Abram Coles, Jr., James D. Williams, Benjamin F. Frazier, Oscar Donaldson, and Thomas L. Jones—were hired by the Columbia Fire Department on May 16, 1953 as probationary firemen and began an intense three-week training program. Throughout the rigorous program, the probationary firefighters endured ridicule, harassment, and other indignities calculated to make them quit the program. “We had a hard time during segregation,” Coles later recalled, “They didn’t want us in the department.” In spite of the oppressive atmosphere, all eight of the men persevered to graduate from training with high marks on both written examinations and physical drills.

The new Harden Street Substation of the Columbia Fire Department officially opened on June 15, 1953. Designed by Heyward Singley, a prominent local architect, the new substation was a modern facility that cost $112,000 to build. Equipped with radio systems, alarm signals, and firefighting equipment, as well as a new fire engine, the Harden Street Substation was touted as a Black fire station. However, the new substation was actually an integrated facility, albeit with a distinct hierarchy and partitioning between Black and white personnel. In addition to the eight African American firefighters, there were two white officers and two white engineers. There were separate dormitories, lockers, showers, and restrooms for Black and white personnel, but the dining and recreation rooms were open to men of both races. In spite of this, the opening of the Harden Street Substation was an important first step on the road to the integration of the Columbia Fire Department and the city, which makes this an invaluable historic space representing the history of race relations in Columbia, South Carolina.

From 1953 through 1968, the Harden Street Substation was the focal point of a transition in race relations within the Columbia Fire Department and the city. For fifteen years, the substation served the Waverly community as well as Eau Claire, a predominantly white community. During this time, it was the only Columbia Fire Department facility to employ African American firefighters. For the first eleven years of the substation’s operation, African American firefighters were denied opportunities for promotion. However, by 1964, two African American firefighters were promoted to assistant engineers. Of the original eight African American firefighters hired in 1953, one retired an assistant deputy chief and another, a deputy chief. The passage of the Civil Rights Act and the excellent performance and persistent advocacy by pioneering Black firefighters at the Harden Street Substation pushed the Columbia Fire Department to integrate its organization in 1969, opening the door for Black firefighters to work from any of the departmental substations and pursue opportunities for professional advancement.

The Hardent Street Substation became part of the African American Civil Rights Network in February 2021.

The African American Civil Rights Network recognizes the civil rights movement in the United States and the sacrifices made by those who fought against discrimination and segregation. Created by the African American Civil Rights Act of 2017, and coordinated by the National Park Service, the Network tells the stories of the people, places, and events of the U.S. civil rights movement through a collection of public and private elements.

Last updated: February 23, 2021