San Francisco honors first Black firefighter with street name

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San Francisco Firefighters Local 798

Lt. Earl Gage Jr., San Francisco’s first African American firefighter, will be remembered with a street named in his honor.

William Ortiz ’22, News Editor

The first Black firefighter in San Francisco, Earl Gage Jr., will be commemorated by the City with a portion of Willow Street in the Fillmore District named in his honor for his service and dedication to push for diversity within the fire department.

Gage was born in 1927 in Beaumont, Texas where he spent his childhood and some of his teenage years until 1945, when his family moved to San Francisco. Here, he graduated from City College and UC Berkeley with a pre-med focus and, after serving in the army, was hired by the SFFD as a trailblazer in 1955, making him San Francisco’s first ever Black firefighter.  

Not many took his hiring well, as he experienced discrimination and racism in the department  as well as in his community. 

This didn’t stop Gage from achieving his goals and striving for more diversity within the department. As Gage advocated for more diversity and equality, he opened the door for many others. 

After 28 years of service, Gage retired in 1983 and in 2017, died at the age of 90.  

“His accomplishments should inspire all people… a lot of Black youth don’t see people who look like them in similar occupations they hope to pursue,” said Na’im Pierce ’21, Riordan’s Black Student Union President.

The idea of the street naming came from Captain Sherman Tillman, President of the Black Firefighters Association. Captain Tillman met Gage a couple of times and had the opportunity to talk to him as well. Tillman said he was touched and inspired by Gage’s story and wanted San Francisco to commemorate him for the work he had done. 

“When he passed away, I was at his funeral and I was like, we got to do something for this man,” Tillman said. “At the time, I didn’t know what we could do. It wasn’t just enough to do a plaque or have something in a paper… maybe we can get a street named after the brotha.”           

The Black Firefighters Association faced delays in the legislative process for the past three years for this proposal, but it gained traction with the help of Dean Preston, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who represents District 5. “To us it was a beautiful proposal — wanting to honor a Civil Rights icon in San Francisco who overcame such adversity and served our city so bravely,” Preston said. 

“He had to overcome so much… It can be terrifying to stand up to hatred and a racist, classist system. Pushing back for justice is hard and so admirable,” said Preston.

His admiration for Gage made him want to push for the proposal and thanks to him, it happened. So in July of 2020, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously for a portion of Willow Street in the Fillmore District in San Francisco to be named after Earl Gage Jr.. 

The people of San Francisco will remember Gage for his service and brave work, but also for his push for diversity, and his legacy will live on to inspire others to achieve their own goals. 

Tillman added, “His legacy is sitting right here. His legacy is me and people that look like me in this fire department. His legacy is people that look like you who know they can be a firefighter… that’s what his legacy is.”