Minneapolis Black history gains a new landmark

Courtesy of Google Maps and the Fire Hall Museum Station #24 then and now on 4501 Hiawatha Ave. in Minneapolis

Remembering Station #24, the city’s first and only Black fire brigade

Minneapolis currently operates 19 fire stations throughout the city, deploying over 400 firefighters to protect lives and property and serve the safety needs of local communities. Recently the City has taken steps to preserve the memory of one such station that holds a special place in the history of Black people in Minnesota. 

On January 18, 2022, the Minneapolis City Council designated Fire Station #24 as a local landmark.

Established in 1879, the Minneapolis Fire Department (MFD) was in high demand as the city rapidly expanded, often responding to structures built prior to approved building codes. One neighborhood in great need was along the Hiawatha corridor near Minnehaha Regional Park, where Fire Station #24 was completed in 1907. 

City first firefighter John Cheatham will be honored with a designated street
Courtesy of Friends of The Cemetery

Led by Minneapolis’ first Black fire captain, John Cheatham, Station #24 drew attention as the city’s first—and only—Black fire brigade. Not only was Captain Cheatham’s appointment historic in nature, but the fact that he was born into slavery in 1855 rendered his life journey a symbol of hope for employment and social equality.

While some residents saw the opening of Station #24 as controversial, others showed support for the assignment of all Black firefighters, including a petition signed by 60 women living in the neighborhood.

“Station #24 is an important part of the narrative for the development of Minneapolis,” said LaJune Lange, president of the LTL International Leadership Institute and retired City Court judge. “African Americans were always present and making a positive contribution.” 

Members of the African American Firefighters Association join Judge Lange in a visit to Station #24.
Photo by Walter Griffin

Lange is largely responsible for shining a light on the significance of Station #24, advocating for landmark status to preserve its place in history, especially in an area where older buildings have been torn down to make way for new development.

Her passion is rooted in a 1970s federal court case, Carter v. Gallagher, to desegregate the Minneapolis Fire Department. Working as a paralegal alongside Luther Granquist, the lead attorney in the class action against the MFD, Lange’s investigation connected her to the last African American employed by the MFD in the 1940s.

“His last name was Calhoun,” stated Lange. “He was fired during World War II for wearing a uniform shirt that was the wrong shade of blue, despite all the correct color shirts [according to Mr. Calhoun] being requisitioned by the military, causing the required color to not be available.” While the city council reinstated Calhoun’s position, he did not return due to fear of retaliation, rather opting to seek a job at the Postal Service.

“Station #24 was closed by the Fire Department in 1941, so the last vestiges of African American first responders were being erased,” Lange added. “In the federal case we established that for 30 years, no African American firefighters were hired after the closing of Station #24 and the firing of Mr. Calhoun,” added Lange.

Courtesy of the Fire Hall Museum Early firefighters at Station #24

Positive change has arrived since the federal case desegregated the MFD, including the appointment of Minneapolis’ second Black fire chief Bryan Tyner in 2021. “When I think about men from Station #24, I feel a tremendous sense of pride and appreciation for their sacrifice and struggles,” reflected Tyner. “They were pioneers who cracked open the door, serving the city when the city wasn’t necessarily serving them.”

On January 18, nearly one year to the date Councilmember Andrew Johnson nominated the property for preservation, the Minneapolis City Council approved the passage of Resolution for the landmark designation (PLAN13750) of Fire Station No. 24, located at 4501 Hiawatha Ave.

Judge Lange couldn’t be more pleased. “It is important to remember at Station #24 the men took their responsibility seriously and were often the first to arrive when multiple units were called to a fire.” Lange added, “They were the only segregated workers in the city, but they did not let segregation define them as men.”

Note: City Councilmember Andrew Johnson is planning a public ceremony on February 18 to honor the city’s first Black fire captain, renaming Dight Avenue to Cheatham Avenue.