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Black History Month: One of City's 1st African-American Firefighters Rose Through the Ranks 

Luther Bradley, 89, was one of the first African-Americans hired by the Fire Department in 1952. He served 36 years and rose to the rank of Deputy Chief.
Luther Bradley, 89, was one of the first African-Americans hired by the Fire Department in 1952. He served 36 years and rose to the rank of Deputy Chief.


As a young man, Luther Bradley never envisioned how his life and career would unfold.

Then in 1952, an opportunity at the Knoxville Fire Department presented itself. Mayor George Dempster decided to hire African-American firefighters for the first time.

Bradley and 10 other African-American men were hired and trained for Fire Department duties. The firefighters, housed at the Engine Company No. 4 fire station in East Knoxville, started battling fires and protecting families on Aug. 6, 1952, after only about a month of training.

Luther Bradley as a young firefighter“I never, in my early years, dreamed of becoming a fireman,” says Bradley, who made firefighting his career.

He served as captain and later was assigned as the fire inspector for the Fire Prevention Bureau. Seven years after his promotion to fire inspector, he became assistant chief in charge of the bureau. Then in 1980, Luther Bradley was promoted to Deputy Chief and Fire Marshal.

He was born on Aug. 2, 1927, in Knoxville to Roy Bradley and Alma Hardin Bradley. Luther Bradley married Harriet E. Lee in 1948, and they have five children together. Prior to becoming a firefighter, he'd worked as a brick mason and had to travel to find work because masonry jobs in Knoxville were limited at the time.

“The most rewarding aspect of my job was that the job provided for my family of seven, my wife and five kids,” he says.

​Throughout this month, City Blog has highlighted the achievements of several African-American leaders, focusing on political pioneers in the City's history and City employees who led integration efforts. Luther Bradley was one of those key historical figures - starting off in a segregated fire hall before earning promotions and helping KFD become more welcoming to minority firefighters.




In 1952, the men assigned to Engine Co. No. 4 were segregated from other fire companies. That continued until 1965, when the African-Americans staffing the East Knoxville fire station were relocated to other stations throughout Knoxville as part of efforts to integrate the Fire Department.

Mayor Dempster hired the City's first African-American firefighters in 1952.

Bradley attributes the slow integration of the Knoxville Fire Department to the existence of Jim Crow laws and society-wide segregation during the 1950s and early 1960s. But he did his part - by setting an example as a firefighter and by participating in the Civil-Rights Movement - to nudge progress in Knoxville. During his career, Bradley helped recruit other African-Americans to become firefighters.

Luther Bradley served the Knoxville community as a firefighter for more than 36 years. He retired on Dec. 31, 1988.

-Communications intern Beverly Banks

Luther Bradley served many roles with the Fire Department in his 36-year career.

Luther Bradley stores his protective firefighting clothing and helmets as a reminder of his years with the Knoxville Fire Department.
Luther Bradley stores his protective firefighting clothing, boots, helmets and other memorabilia as a reminder of his years with the Knoxville Fire Department.

Luther Bradley's lifetime of public service has been recognized by the City and by various community groups.
​Luther Bradley's lifetime of public service has been recognized by the City and by various community groups.

Luther Bradley's badges tell the story of a distinguished 36-year career. He rose through the ranks to serve as a Deputy Chief.
Luther Bradley's badges tell the story of a distinguished 36-year career. He rose through the ranks to serve as Deputy Chief.

Posted by evreeland On 28 February, 2017 at 3:17 PM