San Francisco's First Black Firefighter, Earl Gage, to Have Street Named for Him

Earl Gage Jr., San Francisco's first Black firefighter, was a trailblazer who pushed to improve racial diversity in the Fire Department. (Courtesy of Blondell Chism)

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to name a portion of Willow Street in the Fillmore District after Earl Gage Jr., the city's first Black firefighter.

Gage was hired by the San Francisco Fire Department in 1955 at age 28. He was a trailblazer who pushed to improve the racial diversity in the department, despite being its only Black firefighter for 12 years. He retired in 1983, and died in 2017 at the age of 90.

It was at Gage's funeral that the president of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association, Sherman Tillman, thought of the street name idea.

A family photo of Earl Gage Jr. and his wife, Blondell.
A family photo of Earl Gage Jr. and his wife, Blondell. (Courtesy of Blondell Chism)

“I think looking at a person who could go through all the things that Earl Gage did, and still have love for his fellow man, it's just inspiring,” Tillman said. “Everyone needs to know that type of story. Everybody needs to know that type of love in a person that could withstand all the hate and anguish, and the ‘We don't want you,’ but still overcome it.”

The Black Firefighters Association faced delays in the legislative process for the past three years, but District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston helped the proposal gain traction after he took office last December. His office also led community outreach in the neighborhood that was met with overwhelmingly supportive feedback.

"The naming of a street after the first Black firefighter in San Francisco serves to proactively honor and celebrate Black leaders and pioneers of the civil rights movement," Preston said before the board vote.

Gage’s daughter, Blondell Chism, is proud that her father’s legacy will be commemorated with the naming of Earl Gage Jr. Street. Though her father faced racism and discrimination during his career — especially during the 12 years when he was the only Black firefighter— she saw him persevere and prioritize family above all else.

A family photo of Blondell Chism standing with her parents, Blondell and Earl Gage Jr. (Courtesy of Blondell Chism)

“He set out to be just a person in the fire department — who happened to be a Black person — and really wanted to be seen that way, even though the society was set up very differently,” said Chism. “I think that being said, he stood his ground for 12 years and kept pushing.”

Earl Gage Jr. appeared on the front page of "The Sun-Reporter" on Sept. 10, 1955. (Courtesy of Blondell Chism)

Chism recalled one of many racist incidents her father faced: On multiple occasions, fellow firefighters soiled and threw out his mattress, or refused to sleep on a communal bed after he had slept there. For years, Gage brought his own mattress in his car and carried it in and out of the different stations he was working at.

After facing ongoing racism and threats to his safety, Gage stopped fieldwork and became director of community services for the department. There, he was active in the community, helped recruitment efforts and created a training course for the firefighter entrance exam — after seeing it was a hurdle for many aspiring firefighters.

He was also part of the consent decree by federal courts to push for changes that addressed diversity in the overwhelmingly white and male department.

Since then, “Much has changed, but there's much more left to do,” said District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, chair of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, during an initial vote on the proposal Monday.

Now, after a three-year effort, the portion of Willow Street between Buchanan and Laguna Streets will be renamed Earl Gage Jr. Street.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed presented Earl Gage Jr. with a Certificate of Honor during her tenure as District 5 supervisor.
During San Francisco Mayor London Breed's tenure as District 5 supervisor, she presented Earl Gage Jr. with a Certificate of Honor at his 90th birthday celebration in November 2016. (Courtesy of Blondell Chism)

"During these really unprecedented and challenging times as racial animus is rearing its ugly head around the country, we are honored and privileged to do our small part in commemorating this important piece of San Francisco's Black history," said Supervisor Preston before the vote.

Supervisor Ahsha Safaí also said, during Monday's committee vote, that he plans to hold an oversight hearing later in July to examine the demographics of the city’s public safety agencies.

"We're hopeful that the departments — all of the first responders — will continue to make this a priority in honoring his legacy," he said.

Preston's staff and the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association will hold an online gathering to celebrate Gage and his legacy on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.

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KQED's Shannon Lin contributed to this report.