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Former L.A. firefighter, 92, offers lessons in LAFD's past segregation, discrimination

November 14, 2010 |  1:14 pm

Ever the 'Rookie'

For 70 years, Arnett Hartsfield has been called a rookie.

And for most of that time, the truth behind the nickname haunted him.

He was the 80th black man to join the Los Angeles Fire Department when he signed up in 1940. At the time, he was a UCLA student aiming for an engineering career who needed the job to support his new wife.

But when he reported for duty and was sent to an all-black firehouse in downtown Los Angeles, he couldn't believe what he was getting into.

"That hit me so hard. I wasn't used to being segregated. My family had moved here from Seattle, where we didn't have colored neighbors. My family was integrated — the only grandfather I ever saw was an Irishman from Belfast," said Hartsfield, now 92.

At Station 30 at the corner of Central Avenue and 14th Street, he sized up his co-workers.

"I was going to UCLA, and I looked down on these men. I was thinking they've never even heard of the general quadratic equation. I was thinking I'll be their officer in a few years."

It didn't take Hartsfield long to discover he was wrong about a few things. First of all, he wasn't likely to be promoted any time soon.

The segregated Fire Department had only two black stations. The only way an African American firefighter could advance in rank was to be promoted to another black man's spot. Since there were no leadership positions for blacks beyond the job of captain, nobody was rising in rank.

He learned his lesson about his station mates at his first smoky fire. He and another firefighter entered the blazing structure, and Hartsfield's eyes began burning. Soon, he was choking and gasping for breath.

Read more: "A 'rookie' looks back on a full life."

-- Bob Pool

Photo: Arnett Hartsfield, 92, holds his turnout coat, now on display at the African American Firefighters Museum. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

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