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15-foot mural commemorates San Francisco’s first Black firefighter

A mural of Earl Gage Jr., San Francisco’s first Black firefighter, at Rosa Parks Elementary School on Feb. 25, 2022. | James Wyatt

A 15-foot mural honoring San Francisco's first Black fireman, Earl Gage Jr., was unveiled at Rosa Parks Elementary School in the Fillmore District on Friday. Wes Wong, a local graffiti artist, created the mural of Gage in full color on a black and white backdrop.

"It symbolizes Earl Gage Jr.'s breaking down of color barriers," Wong said. 

The mural came to life at the recommendation of San Francisco Fire Department Captain Sherman Tillman, who also advocated renaming a block of Willow Street in the Fillmore District ‘Earl Gage Jr. Street’ in 2020.

"Without Earl Gage Jr., there'd be no Blacks, Latinos, Asians, or gays [within the fire department]," said Tillman. "There was no diversity before he came, and somebody had to be the first."

Tillman said that for the first half of his career, he had no idea who Earl Gage Jr. was until a colleague invited him to Gage’s 90th birthday celebration and learned of the firefighter’s legacy.

"Meeting Earl Gage Jr. was like meeting our Jackie Robinson,” he said.

The Fight to Integrate

In 1955—the same year that Emmett Till was murdered, Rosa Parks sat down and Martin Luther King Jr. stood up—racial tensions were at their peak throughout the country.

1955 was also the year Earl Gage Jr. became San Francisco’s first Black firefighter and a champion for diversity. Yet his experience serving wasn’t always easy.

Earl Gage Jr. celebrates his 90th birthday at the African American Arts and Cultural Complex in front of a black-and-white photograph of himself. | Photo courtesy of Blondell Chism

When Gage first joined the squad, he was met with a barrage of hostility by his white colleagues, according to his daughter Blondell Chism. It began with other firemen refusing to fight fires with him and escalated to threats of pushing him off rooftops and even harming his family. Colleagues refused to sleep in the same firehouse as Gage, and several defecated and urinated on his bedding as a result of the racial insults. Rather than respond, Gage brought his own mattress and transported it between fire stations.

Despite the many challenges, Chism said her father was resilient.

“He was family-focused and wanted to be able to provide for us,'' she said. “So, he put his head down for a while and did not make waves and remained very quiet and passive to make it through.”

Paving a Way for Future Black Leaders

Gage’s career spanned 28 years, 12 of them as the only Black firefighter. When asked if Gage felt like he successfully created a more diverse environment, Chism said that he felt like he didn’t because, despite advocating to let women into the squad, he was consistently denied.

San Francisco Fire Department Captain Sherman Tillman poses for a photograph next to Blondell Chism, Earl Gage Jr.'s daughter, on Feb. 25, 2022. | James Wyatt

But Mayor London Breed shared a different view at the mural unveiling on Friday, saying that Gage opened doors for different types of Black leadership in San Francisco.

“Earl Gage Jr. paved the way for the first Black fire chief Robert Demmons,'' she said. 

“He paved the way for the first Black mayor Willie Brown Jr. and the first African American woman mayor—me. He sacrificed and went through a challenging time so that so many of us could have opportunities.”

Gage had a successful career despite his traumatic beginnings as a fireman. He retired in 1983 and passed away in 2017.

“Sometimes, if you are in the midst of living your life, you don't realize that you're about to take historical steps,'' said Chism, reflecting on her father’s legacy.