True stories of old Houston and Houstonians: historical and personal sketches / by S. O. Young. Page: 182
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182 TRUE STORIES OF OLD
NEGRO FIREMEN DURING THE WAR.
N 1863 every able-bodied man in Houston who was anything
of a man at all had gone in the army. Houston's fine
volunteer fire department existed only in name, for all the
young men comprising it had promptly volunteered at the first
call. There were only the old men and boys left and as these
were poor material from which to make active firemen, the situation
was rather grave. There was a good hook and ladder
outfit, that of Hook and Ladder Company No. 1, and two fire
machines-I came near saying engines, but they were not. They
were the old-fashioned machines that had a pump somewhere in
the middle, worked by two side arms having at their ends long
bars, which were worked up and down by from ten to fifteen
men on each side. Doubtless many readers of The Chronicle
have seen pictures of these old fire fighting machines, which
exist now nowhere else except in pictures. But there was no
one here to work even these old machines, so it was finally determined
to detail a number of negroes to act as firemen under
white officers. The negroes made splendid firemen and enjoyed
it so much that it was feared by some of the timid citizens that
the negroes would start fires just for the fun and pleasure of
putting them out.
It was a pleasure to watch the negro firemen at a fire. They
threw their whole souls into the work and seemed never to
grow weary, although it was the hardest kind of work and frequently
lasted for. two or three hours without stop or rest.
Nominally they were under the control of white men, but actually,
after they got their pumps going and their streams of water
well directed, they were under their own control, so far as
running those handlebars was concerned. A little whiskey
handed around in a bucket and drunk out of a tin cup without
water was all-sufficient to keep them on the go under a full
head of steam for hours. They sang, of course, for a real negro
can do nothing that requires rapid action without singing, and
they composed their own words and, I suspect, their own tunes,
I remember a big fire that occurred down by where the gas
works now are, in 1863. Quite a number of small houses were
burned. Of course, with the present day fire department the
fire would never have extended beyond the first house, but at
that time whenever a house caught fire, if there was one near
it, it was pretty apt to go, too. Anyway, four or five went that
time, one after the other, the negroes fighting the fire like
demons, and singing like angels, for they do sing sweetly. One
of my grandfather's negroes, John Cook, better known to everybody
as "Big John," because of his great size, was choir leader.
He would sing a verse alone and then other negroes would take
up the refrain. I heard the song so often that' I remember the
tune and one of the verses. I can't give you the air, but I can
give the verse, which was as follows:
Here’s what’s next.
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Young, Samuel Oliver. True stories of old Houston and Houstonians: historical and personal sketches / by S. O. Young., book, 1913; Galveston, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth24646/m1/182/: accessed June 29, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; .