Roosevelt Barlow, 85, Phila. firefighter

Posted: July 17, 2003

Roosevelt Barlow, 85, who battled both fire and racial bias during his three decades with the Philadelphia Fire Department, died Monday of heart failure at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital.

One of the first African American captains in the department, Mr. Barlow helped found the department's organization for black firefighters.

He initially hoped to become a police officer but found himself low on the list after taking the civil-service exam.

Faring much better on the Fire Department's test, he joined the department and was sent straight to the all-black Engine Company 11 at 10th and South Streets, known then among firefighters of all races as the "Jim Crow station."

At that time, firefighters worked a 24-hour shift, then took a day off. Because of discrimination, the Engine 11 station was a crowded place.

"Sometimes we had 14 people on the apparatus," Mr. Barlow said in an interview last year. "We were the blacks, so they had to pile us on . . . like cattle."

In 1952, the practice of assigning African Americans to Engine 11 and to one fireboat - and nowhere else - was halted as part of a city effort to integrate the Fire Department. That same year, Mr. Barlow was promoted to lieutenant.

In 1959, Mr. Barlow was promoted to captain. He retired as an acting battalion chief in 1967.

Mr. Barlow was frank about his assessment of race relations in the department during those early years.

To the white firefighters, "we were always different," he said.

Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston, also an African American, said Mr. Barlow paved the way for others.

"A determined person like Roosevelt Barlow made it possible for people like me to become the commander of the Philadelphia Fire Department," Hairston said.

In 1962, Mr. Barlow was one of the founders of Valiants Inc., a group representing black firefighters in Philadelphia.

In 1974, the group filed a class-action lawsuit that led a federal judge to declare that the department discriminated against blacks. The judge ordered the department to revamp its entrance exam and hire additional black firefighters.

In 1974, about 8 percent of the department was African American. Today, 22 percent of the department is black. The city population is about 43 percent African American.

Hairston said yesterday that the department's small attrition rate made it difficult to move the numbers.

"It will probably be another 20 years before we catch up," he said.

After retirement, Mr. Barlow worked as an employment specialist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, assigning jobs from janitors to secretaries.

"During his hospital stay before his death, many of these people came to thank him for giving them a start in life," said his son, Raymond Barlow, a sergeant in the police Homicide Unit.

Mr. Barlow, who loved classical music and jazz, served as a deacon at Mount Zion Baptist Church of Holmesburg, on the board of directors of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, and with Concerned Black Men Inc. for more than 20 years.

Born in Georgia, one of 13 children, Mr. Barlow was raised in Chinatown. He graduated in 1935 from Simon Gratz High School, where he met his wife of 64 years, Virginia Poole Barlow. They lived in Northeast Philadelphia for the last 48 years.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Barlow is survived by three grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; and a sister.

Friends may visit tomorrow at 5 p.m. at Mount Zion Baptist Church of Holmesburg, 8101 Erdrick St. Burial will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at Rolling Green Memorial Park, Routes 3 and 202, West Chester.

Memorial donations may be sent to Concerned Black Men, Inc., 7200 N. 21st St., Philadelphia 19138.

Contact staff writer Gayle Ronan Sims at 215-854-4185 or

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