In 1849 California adopted a constitution that bans slavery and applied for admission to the United States. In order to balance the state’s entry into the Union as a “free state”, the Compromise of 1850 included other measures including a stricter law on the return of fugitive slaves, the state constitution says, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for punishment of a crime, shall ever be tolerated,” but that didn’t seem to take effect as the state archives show that slavery was still openly practiced.

In fact, there was once a newspaper ad about a slave being sold for $100 that wrote, “Negro for sale. On Saturday, June 26, I will sell at public auction a negro man, he having agreed to said sale in preference of being sent home.” That was just one of the many ads shamelessly published in newspapers during that time. Not only that, but those who tried to escape and were captured were imprisoned before being returned to their “owners.” It was pretty much the same beginning for the first black female firefighter named Molly Williams.

Advertisement for a slave. (LITHUB)

Started As a Slave

The journey of Molly Williams toward firefighting began when she served Benjamin Aymar, a very wealthy businessman and founder of Aymar & Company. At that time, Molly’s husband, Peter, was also working for Aymar before he sold them in 1783 for 40 pounds sterling to Wesley Chapel, which was the first incarnation of the John Street United Methodist Church situated in Manhattan’s Financial District. There, they served as indentured servants and lived in the church’s basement. Molly’s primary tasks were cooking and cleaning while Peter served as a sexton— in charge of buildings maintenance and grave digging. Soon, they had a son named after his father, and they were able to finish their contracts of servitude and live free at last.

Helping the Crew

Molly returned to work at Aymar’s home, cleaning the house, cooking, and looking after his eight kids. Aymar, at that time, was a volunteer for the budding firefighting corps of the city— something that many well-off merchants took part in, including himself. During that period, firefighting corps were not part of the government nor any governing body, just that there were lots of fires incident. Of course, the more properties one has, the more chances one of them would soon be engulfed in the fire, wiping away everything. As for Aymar, he was worried that his merchandise in the warehouses along Lower Manhattan’s docks would turn into ashes, so he had to be on the watch.