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.

And so he would bring Molly along whenever he worked at Oceanus Engine Co. 11, near Zuccotti Park. She would also cook meals for the crew and clean the station for them. When flu, yellow fever, and cholera outbreak erupted, she also took care of them.

“I belongs to ole’ Leven”

It was one of those blizzard-filled days of 1818 when a fire broke out in William Street. Many of the crew were out of work, suffering from one of the aforementioned disease outbreaks. But Molly was there, dressed in her signature dress and apron checkered, and she was not just going to sit while the rest of the crew stumbled into drawing the engine. Molly, probably for the first time in her life, held on and dragged the rope along with the others. The other firefighters credited her for being as tough as the male firefighters, “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys,” and accurately so, if not more. When the fire was out, she was asked what engine she belonged to, to which she answered with, “I belongs to ole’ Leven; I allers run wid dat ole bull-gine.” Thus, she earned the name “Volunteer 11.”

This brief tale of the first black female firefighter has one more twist that is pretty mindblowing.  Molly Williams, the volunteer firefighter, pulled the fire wagon by hand, climbed ladders, and operated the hand pump for the hoses was 71 years old.