To celebrate Black History Month, we want to share the inspiring story of Molly Williams – one of the earliest documented African American, and the first documented women, in firefighting.
Molly Williams was an African American woman and a slave of New York City merchant, Benjamin Aymar, in the early 1800’s. The stories differ on how Molly came to be a member of the Ocean Engine Company #11 in Manhattan. Many say Aymar – a volunteer firefighter himself – initially brought her into the fire department to work as a cook.
The winter of 1818 was particularly harsh for New York. Influenza raged throughout the community, causing community members to fall ill in droves. Also during this era, fire pumpers existed to help with the delivery of water to a fire scene, but they were completely manual. The apparatus for Ocean Engine Company #11 was no exception. It was a small pumper that had to be manually pulled to the scene by a firefighter on foot to deliver water.
One crisp, winter day a blizzard struck the city while all of the volunteer firefighters were out sick with the flu. During that time, a fire broke out in the jurisdiction of Ocean Engine Company #11. Molly, who was the only one not ill at the fire station, jumped into action and pulled the pumper by herself through deep snow to respond to the emergency. She was hailed for her strength and heroism, earning her the nickname of “Volunteer No. 11” within the company.
Molly is the earliest, documented instance of an African America individual, and a woman, in the fire service. Whether she knew it at the time or not, she was both a pioneer for people of color and women in this industry and continues to serve as an inspiration.