Springfield firefighter Charles Barnes honored decades after making history

Army veteran who was first Black lieutenant for city ‘deserves recognition, even if it is 40 years overdue.’

In 1970 when Army veteran Charles “Chuck” Barnes decided to take the civil service test to join the Springfield Fire Division, he became the first African-American to pass the test — and with with flying colors. He would go on to become the first Black firefighter to earn the rank of lieutenant with the department.

Now, some people are working to make sure Barnes receives recognition for his time and accomplishments in the Springfield Fire Rescue Division.

“I will not pretend to know Lt. Barnes’ story, nor do I fully understand the challenges he had to overcome just to be a member of Springfield Fire,” current International Association of Firefighters Local 333 (IAFF 333) President Kevin Sanders said. “The little bit I have come to find out makes me believe that Lt. Barnes never received the credit he was due … being ‘the first’ in any profession is noteworthy, being the first African-American on our fire department and then becoming the first promoted minority, especially during the time period Lt. Barnes was successful, is quite remarkable.”

Lt. Bruce Kelley, who also is the current Fire Division chaplain, said, “When I joined the Springfield Fire Division in 2003, I had never heard of Lt. Charles Barnes.”

When Kelley was promoted to lieutenant, “a lot of people thought I was the first member of the Black community to do so. I am not, and the man who did deserves recognition, even if it is 40 years overdue.”

Kelley has made it his personal mission to honor and celebrate Barnes, who achieved the rank of lieutenant in 1979, placing at the top of the promotion list, with a raw score of 100% on his civil service promotional exam, a 7.50 rank for seniority and 6.4% score for efficiency (performance).

“Those are some of the highest scores you’ll ever see,” Kelley said. “He mentored many of the African-Americans who joined the fire department after him in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.”

“You have an excellent reputation as a firefighter, and I know it will carry through as an officer,” Charles McGrath, president of the Local 333 IAFF at the time, wrote to Barnes in a congratulatory letter. “Local 333 is proud of our members who move up through the ranks.”

Ella Barnes, his widow, appreciates the acknowledgement of her late husband’s accomplishments and said he was proud of his profession.

The two met when she was serving with the Red Cross and he was serving as a medic at the Presidio of San Francisco, where Charles tended to many of the wounded from the Vietnam war.

The two married in 1968 after Charles received his honorable discharge from the service, and they moved to Springfield after their first daughter, LaHoma Michelle, was born.

Their second daughter, LaRae, was born in 1972. Ella Barnes remembers taking the girls to visit their father at the Pleasant Avenue and Home Road fire stations where he worked when the girls were young.

Charles continued his education at Central State and Wittenberg universities, but found his 12-year fire career cut short when he suddenly began experiencing chest pain and drove himself to the hospital, where he was admitted to the coronary unit and treated for a heart attack.

“I didn’t know he had heart problems until he got sick,” Ella Barnes said. “He didn’t know it either.”

When Barnes was forced to retire due to his health issues, Union President McGrath again wrote to him.

“It is sad that such a promising career got cut short ... I am sure if you remained in the fire services without that warning, we would have carried you out of a fire because you were the type to give your all.”

Barnes died at the age of 36 in 1984.

Fire Chief Jacob King, who was last year appointed to his leadership post, joined in recognizing the significant role Charles Barnes holds in the history of the fire division.

“I know little about Lt. Barnes because I started my job such a short time ago, but I believe this is a great opportunity to share our history and note successes from a time when society did not celebrate the success of minorities. It’s important to recognize what Lt. Barnes navigated,” King said. “It is a testament to his character, and to his commitment to his community and his department.”

“We are marking Black History Month,” King said, ”but I hope for a time when we celebrate all successes all the time and focus on how we can do better to achieve complete inclusion. I believe it is a commitment of every sector of the city.”

King noted Springfield City Manager Bryan Heck has established an Ideas Committee dedicated to increasing diversity, inclusion and understanding across all city departments.

“It is a worthy goal we can all work together to achieve,” King said.

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