D.C. Fire Station Named for Pioneering Chief Burton W. Johnson

By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009

District fire officials and community leaders gathered yesterday to name Engine Company 4, near Howard University, in honor of Burton W. Johnson, the District's first African American fire chief. Under a billowing 40-foot American flag, more than 100 people remembered the contributions of a man who joined the city's fire department 19 years before it was integrated.

"Chief Burton Johnson was a trendsetter, an advocate for equality," said Nathan Queen of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, an organization Johnson helped found 39 years ago.

Johnson joined the department in 1943 and was assigned to Engine Company 4, then an all-black company. He rose through the ranks of an agency known for racial tension, serving as the city's first black fire marshal before becoming chief in 1973, a promotion that prompted a white competitor to file discrimination charges.

During his five years as chief, Johnson ordered the recruitment and hiring of more minority firefighters and hired the District's first female firefighter, Beatrice Rudder.

"He was not one of the ones that was out in the street protesting," said Theodore Holmes, 70, who served under Johnson and said he considered him a mentor. Instead, Johnson worked quietly behind the scenes, Holmes said, guiding others to push for change, such as eliminating "colored-only" beds at stations.

"Anyone in this department who is a minority has Burton Johnson's shoulders to stand on," said Holmes, whose son is a D.C. firefighter.

In the early 1970s, Johnson recognized smoke detectors as crucial to safety and led a move to require them in homes, said Burton Clark of the National Fire Academy. "People are alive today because of the seed that he planted," Clark said.

Among those who spoke at the ceremony were Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and fire chief Dennis L. Rubin.

Johnson died two years ago at age 89. His sister, Sylvia Brown, attended yesterday's ceremony, and his daughter, Brenda Ford, helped unveil a plaque bearing the fire station's new name, the Burton W. Johnson House.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company