VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The year is 1948: Harry S. Truman is President, and WVEC-TV won't exist for another five years. And, in a post-World War II American landscape, segregation divided cities and neighborhoods.
“I wasn’t allowed to go to certain places near the Oceanfront," Bill Graves said. "But what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
More than seven decades ago, a group of African American men changed the course of local Black history in Princess Anne County, which is now part of the City of Virginia Beach. Their impact still has echoes in the community today.
In the summer of 1948, more than a dozen men signed up to become the first firefighters of the Station 12 Seatack Volunteer Fire Department, located in the historic Seatack community, a once-thriving African American community just a few miles west from the city's Oceanfront.
“These men stood up. They took the challenge to support themselves," local historian Edna Hawkins-Hendrix told 13News Now.
The idea was for Seatack to become an entirely self-sufficient community, and not have to rely on services and help from other areas.
“African Americans decided they needed a fire station of their own. They would have to pay $50 of their own to get a white fire station to come and put out the fire," Hawkins-Hendrix said.
According to historical records, a $50 fee was applied for fires extinguished by the nearby Virginia Beach fire station outside the Beach Borough. The Seatack Volunteer Firefighters trained to become a fundamental community resource.
"Can you imagine back in the ’40s and ’50s, when they were segregated, and this community was a self-contained community within itself?" asked Hawkins-Hendrix.
Station 12 stood out because it belonged to its neighbors.
In the beginning, the station was entirely staffed and controlled by African American men, and the surrounding Seatack community raised the funds for the station's first fire truck, a used 1924 Holabird with a 700-gallon water tank purchased for $2,500 from the Oceana Volunteer Fire Department.
“Norfolk had a fire station manned by African Americans. But the city owned it. The city owned that particular fire station," Hawkins-Hendrix explained. "The one in Princess Anne County was owned by the community, and they supported that fire station."
Based on historical records, Station 12 is believed to be one of the earliest Black-owned fire stations in the United States. Hawkins-Hendrix couldn't say exactly what order it came in.
“I will say among [the first], just in case another comes up," she said. "As you can tell with African American history, there are new discoveries coming up all the time."
By the 1960s, the station had grown to dozens of firefighters, and the names of the original 19 firefighters still shine on a plaque outside the station's relocated base on South Birdneck Road.
They were leaders whom Graves still remembers.
“What red-blooded American boy doesn’t want to be a firefighter?" Graves asked.
At 16 years old, Graves joined a still-entirely-African-American unit as a volunteer junior firefighter. Next to Sunday church, it was "the thing" to be a part of.
“No one made me become a part of it, it was something I wanted to because it was exciting.”
The original location of Station 12 is where the Seatack Community Rec Center now stands. It’s named after Joseph Grimstead, one of the original firefighters who dedicated the land to the city.
No matter how much the building and the place may change, its history is set in stone.