BALTIMORE — Separate, but equal.
When Hilton L. Roberts joined the fire department he and other Black firefighters could not sleep, wash or relieve themselves in the same facilities as their white counterparts, and his daughter, Pat, says he faced unfair treatment outside the station as well.
“He did share a couple of times he went to put a fire out and someone threw a brick and hit him in the head,” said Pat Roberts.
But Roberts did not let it deter him and often insisted on being the first to enter some of the worst fires.
“He had the goal of being a firefighter within the Baltimore City Fire Department and nothing was going to get in his way, not even Jim Crow segregation,” said Mayor Brandon Scott.
On a day when Engine Company 52 now becomes known as Hilton L. Roberts Sr. Fire Station, his son, Keith recalled a time more than half a century ago when his father helped battle as many as 50 fires during the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“My father would literally wear his uniform to ride public transportation intentionally to invoke conversation among the rioters,” said Keith Roberts.
“He was gone all of the time,” recalled Pat Roberts. “When he came in, that was the first time that I had seen Army rations. That’s how they were living for that week or that time period. He came in, went to sleep and left, but his dedication to the fire department was loyal and, ‘This is what I need to be doing. This is what God sent me to do.’
Robert’s legacy includes a great-granddaughter who serves as a firefighter in that same department today.
Roberts spent more than 28 years with the fire department and died in 1980 when he was just 55 years old.