23 Years at Station 8, Hall’s Hill
Julian Syphax was one of the first paid black firefighters in Arlington as well as one of the first paid firefighters at the Hall’s Hill station.
The Arlington County Government began formerly providing fire protection in 1940, creating a career system for what was previously a network of volunteer fire fighting departments in the county. A volunteer-run station was established in Hall’s Hill in 1925, but the employment program was limited to white firefighters only for its first decade.
Julian Syphax, then a young man from Ithaca, New York, moved to Arlington in 1949 and applied for a job as a firefighter at a time when the County was beginning to make positions available to black applicants. Mr. Syphax’s interview is a tremendous source of information for people interested in the experience of desegregation, as well as the history of fire protection in Arlington County.
In this clip, Mr. Syphax reflects on the initial difficulties he and his colleague Alfred had working with the other majority white firefighter stations, as well as his appreciation for his time as a firefighter and the close-knit community of the Hall’s Hill neighborhood.
NARRATOR: Julian Syphax
INTERVIEWER: Judith Knudsen
DATE: May 20, 2016
JS: Well, I can honestly say that at the beginning of our careers, Alfred and I were really let known that they didn’t want us, from the way we were treated at a fire, you know, no—
JK: This is the other firefighters you’re talking?
JS: The other firefighters.
JK: Okay. The white firefighters.
JS: Firefighters did not want us, and, I have to admit, some of the chiefs, some of the people in charge. A lot of times there were fires in our first-due territory, so we were called on. They would call second due and third due before they would call us. I lived at that time, when I got married, across the street from the firehouse, and there was a fire in a barrel in my yard. Somebody had set on fire. And the firehouse was across the street, and they called in Cherrydale, who was second due, and we all stood there and watched them come up Lee Highway from Cherrydale to put the fire out. So it was known that they didn’t want us.
But like I said before, it all turned out to be a very nice job, and from Ithaca, New York, I found that the only reason for the racism was that they didn’t have any communications. But after I found out that they got to know each other, there wasn’t that much different in either one of us, so broke down kind of fast.
JK: So what was the community like just living there? Just aside from that, what do you remember about Hall’s Hill and—
JS: Close, very close. The neighbors, all Hall’s Hill, was very, very close. They had a kind of a—instead of going all the way to the Safeway, there was a little family store that you could get bread and milk, stuff like that, staples. And church. There was a Methodist church that is still there, I think, on Lee Highway. Calloway. Calloway Methodist Church was there, which I would say 80 percent of Hall’s Hill attended. And just a lot of social activity, that everybody knew everybody, and they were very close-knit.
JK: Yeah, what I always hear is if the children misbehave, everybody—
JS: It was a village. Really, that was very true. Took a village to raise your child.
JK: So how long were you at Hall’s Hill? How many years that you were there?
JS: I never changed.
JS: I was at Station 8—
JK: The whole time.
JS: —my whole career for twenty-three years, yeah. That’s why I’m so very thankful and I’m so honored for this. I just don’t have the words to express it.
You can find Julian Syphax’s interview in its entirety in the Center for Local History – VA 975.5295 A7243oh ser.3 no.295. Photo: Hall’s Hill Volunteer Fire Department 1931; Source: Photographs of the Arlington Historical Society, PG 230-4075
The goal of the Arlington Voices project is to showcase the Center for Local History’s oral history collection in a publicly accessible and shareable way.
From June 2017 – May 2018, we will post one oral history clip and transcript each month, focusing on Arlington’s history, culture and identity.
What is the oral history collection?
Oral history is a popular method of research used for understanding historical events, actors, and movements from the point of view of people’s personal experiences.
The Arlington Public Library began collecting oral histories of long-time residents in the 1970s, and since then the scope of the collection has expanded to capture the diverse voices of Arlington’s community. In 2016, staff members and volunteers recorded many additional hours of interviews, building the collection to 575 catalogued oral histories.
To browse our list of narrators indexed by interview subject, check out our community archive. To read a full transcript of an interview, visit the Center for Local History located at Central Library.