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San Francisco to name street after first Black firefighter, a Catholic convert

San Francisco’s first Black firefighter, a Catholic convert whose faith helped him endure years of racial abuse within the department, will have a city street named after him. Gage converted to Catholicism to marry his Catholic wife.

 

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously June 14 to name a portion of Willow Street between Buchanan and Laguna after Earl Gage Jr. The street runs through the Western Addition neighborhood of the city where the Gage family — longtime St. Emydius parishioners — lived.

“He was a man who kept his strong faith,” his daughter Blondell Chism told Catholic San Francisco July 24. “No matter what happened, all was good and he was blessed.”

Gage converted to Catholicism to marry his Catholic wife, also named Blondell.

While the Department of Public Works readies the new street sign for an as-yet-unscheduled installation date, San Francisco Supervisor Dean Preston has commissioned a mural of Gage to accompany it.

Gage was hired by the San Francisco Fire Department in 1955 at age 28 and was the sole Black firefighter for the next 12 years. He retired in 1983 and died in 2017 at age 90.

His hire was a progressive move for the times and not embraced by all members of the department, said Sherman Tillman, president of the Black Firefighters Association. He said:

“There were the fellow firefighters who refused to sleep on any mattress Gage had occupied in the communal firehouse. His mattress was urinated on so repeatedly that the young firefighter took to carrying his own with him from station to station.”

“When you think about the discrimination he saw toward himself you’d think a person would be disillusioned and hateful toward the people who did those things,” said Tillman, also a longtime parishioner of Star of the Sea Parish on Geary Blvd. “He wasn’t.”

Threats to his safety eventually led Gage away from field work and to a role as the SFFD’s director of community services. There he helped create a new training course for the firefighter’s exam after seeing it was a hurdle for many aspiring firefighters. He was also part of a federal court consent degree that pushed for diversity in the predominantly white, male department.

Tillman called Gage a “man of God who tried to see the best in people despite their flaws.”

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