1016 South St. stands directly next to Philadelphia mosaic artist Isaiah Zager’s greatest masterpiece, the walk-through debris sculpture aptly called the Magic Garden.  While the eyes of most viewers will understandably be drawn to this highly unusual sight, right next to it stands a building with a fair degree of its own historical importance.  Indeed, this location would become a firehouse in 1871 when Philadelphia established its paid municipal fire services. The undated photograph below shows the firehouse somewhere near the turn of the century, as denoted by the use of a horse-drawn fire truck.

A Fire Company at the Turn of the Century

The image here below, taken from G.W. Bromley’s 1910 Philadelphia Atlas, shows the Fire Company in its South Street location, but this only hints at the building’s significance.

Fire Company in 1910

According to PhilaPlace, with the inception of segregation in the Philadelphia Fire Department in 1919, Engine 11 would become the first and only all black fire company in the city.  PhilaPlace reports that prior to that point, the rare black fireman was largely relegated to horse stable maintenance and other non-firefighting activities.  Thus, in spite of the negative connotation of segregation, this transition would provide black firefighters with the opportunity to actively protect their own neighborhoods.  The portrait here below, taken from PhilaPlace and credited to the Fireman’s Hall Museum, shows the company during this era of segregation.

Engine 11’s segregated company, circa 1940

Though the fire department was desegregated in 1952, Engine 11 remained a largely African American company. The image here below, also from PhilaPlace, shows the firehouse in what appears to be the 1950s, likely after desegregation but before true integration.

Engine 11 Firehouse circa 1950s, for some reason sporting an astrological look

The site Historic and Former Philadelphia Firehouses indicates that the company relocated to 601-09 South Street in 1976.  Taken from the photo-blog ThirstyFish, the image here shows a mural at this location memorializing the heroism of the segregated Engine 11 Company.

A mural at 601 South St celebrating the achievements of the Engine 11 company

Today, the former site of the Engine 11 Firehouse is again dedicated to creating new opportunities, this time as the Willie G. Williams Community Center.  The Community Center’s OpportUNITY program is dedicated to helping ex-convicts reenter society by giving them training and employment in the construction field.

The Willie G. Williams Community Center, 2013

–David Tomar