CHARLOTTE, NC (FOX 46 WJZY) - When the sirens sound, the brave men and women of the Charlotte Fire Department jump into action, but there’s a little know history within the department that helped make it what it is today.
Meet the Neptunes: the first African-American squadron at the Charlotte Fire Department. Interim Fire Chief Pete Key is historian to this key part of the fire department’s history.
“The Neptunes were an African-American fire department or a volunteer fire department by doing the early 1800s that served the citizens of Charlotte in regards to house fires or any other cause they’d go out on,” Chief Key said.
The Neptunes were a skilled group of businessmen, teachers and even some politicians. They were named after their most valuable asset: a hand pump named The Neptune.
“They would take the handles and then fill it with water, or they would go to a system and put the supply into the holes. It was nothing but a well. Once they did that, it’s nothing but a farm pump.”
Chief Key also talked about how the Neptunes would typically sing a song as they worked to keep time as they pumped the water.
“The cadence would go to the beat of the song or whatever they were doing but they were primarily singing when they pump this apparatus and those handles would keep flying and they‘d keep working and rotate out when they became tired,” he said.
The Neptune has been replaced with new high tech trucks, but the impact the Neptune's left behind is still felt in the department.
Captain Derek Cooper says the history of these African-American pioneers is a story everyone needs to hear.
“I think it’s important for the citizens of Charlotte and everyone to know the history of the Neptune’s because hard work and perseverance crosses all racial lines,” Captain Cooper said.
Captain Cooper and Chief Key are among the few African-Americans who are leading the charge in helping to promote adding diversity in the ranks of the Charlotte Fire Department. He wishes the Neptunes’ story was more widespread.
“As far as the Neptunes fairing today I think they’d be great. Not only are they hard workers and trailblazers, they had to be leaders because not everyone can do this job. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Captain Cooper.
Charlotte now has an African American Mayor, Police Chief and Fire Chief. FOX 46’s Howard Monroe asked how it made Chief Key feel to know that he is part of the diversifying leadership in the city.
“It’s always inspiring when people within their race are doing good things, and it’s great to be an inspiration to people. You have to carry yourself in a certain demeanor and you have to stay that way because they’re coming behind you,” Chief Key said. “I’m trying to blaze the way, so in essence I consider myself a trailblazer…I keep doing things so I can help people.”
Chief Key, Captain Cooper and countless others saving lives today and living out the legacies of their forefathers.