PEORIA, Ill. (WMBD) — The only fire station in Peoria to bear someone’s name is named for the city’s first Black firefighter, who paved the way for future generations.
Edward B. Gaines Jr. served as Peoria’s first Black firefighter from 1957 to 1978. In October 2022, Fire Station 4 in South Peoria opened with his name on it.
“Edward Gaines was a pioneer. He was the first Black firefighter to get on the job and he set the trend for us. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him,” said Peoria firefighter Bobby Anderson, president of the Afro-American Firefighters’ Association.
James McCoy, retired Peoria firefighter and past president of the Afro-American Firefighters’ Association, said Gaines was a “guiding light” who overcame many obstacles and broke barriers.
“You got to keep in mind the time that we were dealing with. Jim Crow laws at that time, African Americans were viewed as second-class citizens, so there were a lot of different adversities that Mr. Gaines had to go through when he came onto the job,” he said.
Gaines’ nephew Leroy James said his uncle had to deal with a lot of racism from his coworkers, who believed he was not their equal.
“Going to the firehouse, finding his mattress turned over, pillows thrown out on the floor. But he was determined, he was not going to let that get to him,” he said.
But Gaines had tough skin and persevered, showing up every day for more than 20 years.
“He was the type of person that he wouldn’t let anybody get to him. He was going to do what he had to do to make it, and he taught me that way… If you’re going to make it, there will be hard times but you have to shake that off… Nothing will stop you except you,” said James.
McCoy said Gaines taught others to stay professional, no matter what.
“He would actually teach you that you got to persevere and be willing to go through things you know are not right. Because if you act up, or respond the way most people want to respond, you’re going to hurt the opportunity for somebody coming along behind you later,” he said.
Anderson said Gaines inspired him to get into the service.
“Somebody that was strong, resilient, proud and just hardworking. And I just want to carry that on… He inspired me to reach out to my community, to be a professional, to be a public servant,” he said.
Through the fire station and trucks bearing his name, McCoy said Gaines will continue to inspire generations of young Black men to become firefighters,
“They’ll explain who he was and the time that he came on. I’m hoping that can be inspirational to little young kids, who might say ‘man someday I wanna do that’,” he said.
Peoria Fire Chief Shawn Sollberger said the visibility of Gaines’ name will continue to keep his legacy alive.
“So what we’re hoping is this spurs conversation, it intrigues people to want to be professional firefighters, that they can see people of color and think ‘I can do that,” Sollberger said.
Fire Station 4 is located on Western Avenue in South Peoria.