This article originally appeared in the Phillips community's Alley Newspaper, February 2005.
Photo: Hennepin History Museum
John Cheatham was born a slave in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 15, 1855. He was freed on January 1, 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation went into effect. Shortly afterwards, his family moved to Minneapolis where he attended school. After graduation he held a number of jobs, including porter and church sexton.
On March 13, 1888, John Cheatham was one of 37 men appointed to the Minneapolis Fire Department by Frank L. Stetson, Chief Engineer. Although the records aren’t entirely clear, Mr. Cheatham was, if not the first African-American firefighter in Minneapolis, certainly one of the earliest. He had a distinguished career within the department, holding several positions of responsibility and receiving numerous promotions. He began as a pipeman and was promoted to driver after three years. Less than three years later he was promoted to lieutenant. On January 1, 1899, he was promoted to captain.
John Cheatham and his wife, Susie, owned a home at 3020 20th Avenue. Their four children, Ethel, Bertha, Gilbert and Wesley, attended South High School, and the family belonged to Bethesda Baptist Church. On June 16, 1906, Susie Cheatham died from typhoid; she was 46 years old. Within a year of her death, John Cheatham found himself at the center of the one controversy of his career.
In 1907, John Cheatham and two other African-American firefighters (Lafayette Mason and Frank Harris) were placed in charge of the Minnehaha Fire Station located at the intersection of 45th Street and Hiawatha Avenue. Their appointment met with resistance from some local residents who circulated a petition demanding that the men be replaced by white firefighters on “general principle.” That move was “strenuously resisted” by another group of residents who circulated a petition in support of the firefighters.
An article in the Minneapolis Journal detailed the excellent records of Cheatham, Mason and Harris. The article noted that Cheatham had “distinguished himself” in the House of the Good Shepherd fire and said that there was “no man on the books of the department who can show a better record.”
Cheatham’s response to the situation was straightforward. He said that all he wanted was “a chance to educate my children and get them started right.” He described the move to replace him as “drawing the color line and drawing it stiff.”
Cheatham’s supporters were successful, and John Cheatham remained at the Minnehaha Fire Station until his retirement. He died on August 15, 1918, from chronic endocarditis at the age of 63. He is buried next to his wife and his daughter, Ethel. Ethel died on April 16, 1911, from tuberculosis; she was 25 years old.
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