Black History Month: Henry Allen, Selma’s first African-American fire chief

Black History Month: Henry Allen, Selma’s first African-American fire chief

Henry Allen, Selma's first black firefighter and fire chief, poses at his former high school now the R.B. Hudson Middle School, which was were he first became involved in advocacy, in Selma, Alabama on March 5, 2015.

SELMA, Ala. — When Selma, Alabama, comes to mind, one of the first images that comes up is Bloody Sunday: peaceful protesters marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 7, 1965; Georgia Rep. John Lewis at age 25 with a bloodied face and a fractured skull; Alabama state troopers charging demonstrators and releasing tear gas on peaceful marchers.

So many figures have worked to demand civil rights for black people and people of color in the United States that giving each of them their proper due can be a challenge.

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One such figure also marched in Selma on that day in 1965. He was 20 years old and went on to become the first African-American fire chief in his hometown.

Beginnings in east Selma

Chief Henry E. Allen was born in Selma, Alabama, on Dec. 30, 1944,to Ethel Lee Allen, a cook at a downtown restaurant, and Henry E. Allen, a construction worker.

Allen attended R.B. Hudson High School -- now a middle school -- in 1963.

Time reported that R.B. Hudson was the only black public high school for teens in the '60s. It was the predecessor to an integrated Selma High School, which once was the building of the all-white A.G. Parrish High School in the '60s.

Working with SNCC

Having met Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader Bernard Lafayette in 1963 at a church meeting, Allen was challenged to question the norms of segregation and voter restrictions. He said being challenged on those norms didn't make him see a stigma because his neighborhood was diverse.

"As a matter of fact, my mentor was a white family (Mr. Luther Pepper and Mrs. Mary Pepper) who mentored me from 9 years old up until throughout high school," Allen, 72, told the Cox Media Group National Content Desk.

When word got around that Allen was involved in protests, the family worried that he would get hurt.

"But they never did say no," he said. "And I never stopped participating."

Allen took what he learned and brought it back to school, working with classmates to recruit participants for peaceful demonstrations.

"What was the most important part was character. We were not a bunch of bullies," he said. We were not a bunch of thugs."

Allen said he and others were taught by Lafayette and SNCC how to respond to violence from white people who were upset at their protests, including how to fall when they were hit with billy clubs and how to protect their faces and bodies from blows.

They also distributed voter registration forms and worked to help African-Americans prepare for voter literacy tests.

Civil rights foot soldiers

Allen and so many of his classmates participated in demonstrations and marches that by the time he was in the 12th grade, his school was cleared out.

"At one point, they looked it up. We had 21,000 kids who had been absent from school for marching when they calculated all the time and days," he said.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Selma in January 1965 and drew the news media to cover demonstrations, Allen said marching intensified and the schools were nearly empty every day.

"The superintendent came and told our principal, 'You can't control these (racial slur) over here,'" he said.

Allen said he and other classmates were in the hall listening to the conversation. They decided to march any way.

"The superintendent got in one door and blocked one set of doors and so we just went on around him and went out the door."

But over the next few days, the superintendent used a different tactic: He threatened to keep seniors who missed school by participating in marches from graduating. So Allen and his peers were advised by Hudson High teachers that they could participate in marches and gatherings during the after school hours.

History of firsts

Once he was out of high school, Allen was drafted in the Army, serving as a combat soldier in Vietnam in (year). Allen said his time there conflicted with his training with SNCC.

"The troubling thing with me with the Vietnam War was, here I am being told (to be) nonviolent and all of a sudden, you take me and train me to be a high killer," he said. "You didn't train me just to warn people, you trained me to kill people. And then, you didn't give me an M16 rifle. You gave me a M60 machine gun -- (that) fires 550 rounds per minute. That was my weapon."

Allen returned from Vietnam having lost 75 comrades in an ambush at one point, going months without washing clothes or showering and having faced discrimination in the Army. He said he refused three Purple Hearts knowing two that white comrades received a Distinguished Service Cross and a Silver Star, respectively, while "I got zero." He moved to multiple places in the United States, working different jobs "to see if I could try and find myself when God had a plan for me."

Once he moved back to Alabama, more historical firsts followed.

Allen said he was the first African-American to enlist in the Alabama National Guard. He used his time there to advocate for and recruit other black men and women, opening the door for more opportunities for all women there, but only after he said he demanded respect and equal treatment from the Guard compared to his white peers. He retired from the Alabama National Guard after serving 27 years

In 1972, Allen was hired as the first African-American firefighter in Selma. He became a lieutenant in 1977 and a captain in 1992. By 1995, Allen became the first African-American fire chief in the city. He was unanimously hired by the Selma City Council.

"They didn't just give a title," Allen said. "I knew that I had to have as much skill and knowledge as I could possibly have. My military training that I had gone through, all the leadership school and all the various schools that I had gone through -- that really aligned me up to where I needed to be."

Allen retired from the department in 2009 after serving Selma for 37 years performing rescues and fighting fires.

Continuing to serve Selma

Allen's work didn't end with his time in the fire department.

In 2013, Allen began the work to have his high school alma mater, now Selma City School Systems' R.B. Hudson Middle School, listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. It was listed in 2014. The process for a national historic landmark plaque is  currently underway. It was important to him to have the students there and in surrounding areas who participated in marches recognized for their role in change that led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Although the role of young people in the movement in Alabama is mentioned by some and in some books, Allen said, "it's not even in the (school) curriculum."

"Nobody has been bold enough to say, if it hadn't been for the youth of Selma, Alabama, we would've never made it to that bridge," Allen said. "We took them to the bridge and took them across the bridge and brought them back on the other side of the bridge. We were a chosen generation -- a royal priesthood. It's just that simple."

The role of young people made a large impact in the demonstrations and marches that led to civil rights legislation being passed. Many older people could not participate because they had steady jobs they stood to lose for being involved.

"God used the youth of Selma, Alabama, -- (and) spearheaded from the students at R.B. Hudson School, from 1963 to 1965," Allen said.

That same line of thinking led Allen to write a book. In 2016, he released "Marching Through the Flame: The Children of Selma Marched and Did Not Burn," a book of memoirs that he wrote over the course of several years that reflected on his role in the history of Selma and the city itself.

"I got a little disturbed about the fact that we as the youth were left out (of civil rights history in Selma)," Allen said.

"We want the world to know the entire truth -- that it was a youth movement," he said, adding that his late brother and sister, D.C. and Mary, were also involved in the movement as "civil rights foot soldiers." All three were in the infamous Bloody Sunday march.

Allen, who has worked for over 30 years as Parent Teacher Organization president at Sophia P. Kingston Elementary in Selma, hopes to keep working to change and improve things in his town among its leadership and in its education system, as well as in the prison system.

"We're spending more money in the prison system than in the education system ... We've got to keep our kids out of the prison system," he said.

"Hopefully we can have an economic boom in Selma where there can be jobs." According to the Alabama Department of Labor, the city had a 9.12 percent unemployment rate in December.

As PTO president, he works to mentor young children to show that "they can be something they want to be."

After everything Allen has been through, his faith in God has been the consistent thing keeping him moving forward.

“My plan (from God) was to be in Selma, Alabama, to be the first (African-American) member of the Alabama National Guard, be the first (African-American) fire chief,” he said. “Those things that were planned for my life. I look back and say, ‘I could have gotten around that. I couldn’t have gotten around that if I wanted to.’”