Earl Gage, SF’s 1st black firefighter, to be memorialized Monday

Services are scheduled Monday for Earl J. Gage Jr., who became San Francisco’s first black firefighter in the 1950s.

Mr. Gage died July 30 at age 90, surrounded by his family in Elk Grove (Sacramento County).

He began his career with the department in 1955 at age 28, and was later named the director of community services before retiring in 1983. His landmark hiring was noted at the time by city newspapers.

San Francisco Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White said Mr. Gage made a lasting impact on the department. In his role as the director of community services, he helped recruit and integrate the department.

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“He was a trailblazer, and paved the way for the SFFD to become one of the most diverse departments in the world, truly representing the city we serve,” she said.

Mr. Gage’s hiring opened the door for others — including the city’s first black fire chief, Robert Demmons, decades later, said John William Templeton, a historian specializing in African Americans in California and co-founder of National Black Business Month.

“He was part of a generation of pioneers who systematically broke into all the public workforces in San Francisco,” he said.

During his time with the city, Mr. Gage pushed for increased diversity — even calling at one point in 1969 for a change in hiring practices so that minorities could better represented in the force.

At that time, of the more than 1,700 firefighters in the department, only four were black. Mr. Gage himself had been the only black firefighter for 12 years, from 1955 to 1967.

Mr. Gage rarely talked to many about the challenges he faced, said Darryl Williams, his nephew. He did, however, share with Williams how in those early days he had to carry his own mattress to the firehouses he was assigned to because others did not want him to sleep in the beds there. The mattress that had been provided to him was often thrown out — causing him to bring his own.

“It was difficult, but when you have a goal and you’re looking to do what he did, it’s just a step. He had no regrets, that’s for sure,” his nephew said. Williams, who grew up in San Francisco, said Mr. Gage was a role model. He recalled how as a kid he would make sure his classmates knew his uncle was the first black firefighter.

“It was just such an inspiration to have something like that — it meant so much to me,” he said.

It clearly meant a lot to others as well. In November, family, friends, and city officials — including Hayes-White — attended Mr. Gage’s 90th birthday party at the African American Art and Culture Complex in San Francisco. The turnout of hundreds brought him to tears.

“He was so overwhelmed,” Williams said. “Any time your life can have meaning to others — especially something like this — I’m sure he was just pleased. He was grateful to be the person to inspire others.”

Mr. Gage’s family moved from Texas to San Francisco in 1945. He graduated from UC Berkeley and was later drafted into the Army. Mr. Gage married Blondell Wright in 1952 and the two were married up until her death in 2014. He was a devoted fan of the San Francisco 49ers and an avid golfer. After retiring from the department, Mr. Gage became a real estate broker.

The devoted family man is survived by his physician daughter, Blondell Chism; a sister, Earline Daniels; a brother, Thomas Gage, and numerous grandchildren, cousins, nieces and nephews.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at the Third Baptist Church of San Francisco, 1399 McAllister St. The Rev. Amos Brown will be officiating while Hayes-White and Kevin Smith, president of the city’s black firefighters association, will offer special tributes.

Hamed Aleaziz is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: haleaziz@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @haleaziz

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