In the 1960s, Elizabeth Mantley donated a portion of her land in Upper Hammonds Plains for what became the first all-Black volunteer fire department in Canada’s history.
This past Sunday, at a church service at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Upper Hammonds Plains, Mantley’s daughter, Doreen Mantley, was there to accept honours on behalf of her late mother.
The all-Black volunteer fire department was founded in 1966 and incorporated in 1970. The concrete building that housed the department still exists and was recently reacquired by the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Development Association. The association has since launched a capital campaign looking for sponsorships and donations.
The plan is to develop the former fire hall into the Elizabeth Mantley Youth Recreational and Cultural Arts Centre.
“You live right across the street, and you see the land that your mother graciously gave,” Pastor Lennett Anderson told Mantley during the service. “We can’t thank your Mom, but we want to thank you.”
Gina Jones-Wilson serves as the president of the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Development Association. Her father, Christopher Jones, was a founding member of the Upper Hammonds Plains volunteer fire department.
In the early 90s, Wilson-Jones became a volunteer firefighter, and was the first female member of the department her father helped found.
In 2006 she became the department’s first member, and the province’s first female firefighter to receive level-one firefighting credentials. She eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant — the first Black female volunteer firefighter in the province to do so — before she retired.
“The community came together around 1962-63 because we had a variety of fires in the community and the only fire department was the one in … what was known as Lower Hammonds Plains,” Jones-Wilson said in an interview with the Examiner.
Jones-Wilson said years ago there were homes and businesses lost to fires because the response times from other stations weren’t quick enough. So, the men in the community decided to build a fire hall of their own.
“Fortunately, a lot of the men up here were into concrete, so that’s why that building is totally concrete,” she said. “They built it because they were building something that made them proud. After work, each night, they’d go up and build a little bit, and they put their sweat [into it].”
The department closed in 2013. Jones-Wilson along with Wendell David, who served 30 years and rose to the rank of chief and was the longest serving member of the department, were the last two serving members from the Black community of Upper Hammonds Plains working at the department.
History of the station
Emmanuel Baptist Church Pastor Lennett Anderson called the construction of the fire hall a “labour of love.” His father, Lennett Anderson Sr., was also one of the founding members of the department.
“Dad worked in the evenings helping out with the construction of the building. Mom was definitely in the ladies’ auxiliary with the pancake breakfasts and all the fundraising,” Anderson said in an interview with the Examiner.
When the department was founded, Anderson’s father also served as a volunteer firefighter himself. Anderson recalled what it was like for he and his brother Dean to watch the department mobilize into action.
“I remember getting a call, Dad slamming the phone down and running out the door, and telling Mom, ‘You call somebody else!’” Anderson said. “They had a chain, you know; this one call this one, and just find out, who’s home, who’s in the community.”
“We were scared, we didn’t know. [We asked] ‘Did a truck go by your house?!’ ‘Did it go past your house?!’ We would be going to the window and looking.”
Anderson said the volunteer firefighters also responded to other calls from 911, including those for people having heart attacks or asthma attacks.
Anderson also recalls an annual church service dedicated to honouring the firefighters in the community.
“I don’t remember which month, but it was a big thing where other fire departments came to the church, different churches came and celebrated,” he said. “We thanked God for the preservation of community and family, and we honoured and prayed for protection over those that were fighting for our safety and our wellness.”
The fire hall building also served as a hub for the community.
“It was just a place to hang out,” Anderson said. “It was a safe place, it was a communal space, and we were celebrated in that space.”
He remembers the names of some of the longest-serving members, including Maurice “Morris” Allison, who was the department’s long-serving chief, and Wendell David, who Anderson said “lived at the fire hall.”
“I can’t remember a time driving by and not seeing his car there,” Anderson said. “We knew when he was home from work because he went straight to the fire hall.”
“The men went home, had supper, and then went to the station. Whether they were always cleaning the trucks, cleaning the station, preparing the gear, or just hanging out. Just shooting the breeze, just having conversation. It was one of our community gathering places.”
Amalgamation and closure
When it was first built the station had two bays. In later years, after the department got more fire trucks, the station doubled in size and expanded to four bays.
Following amalgamation in 1996, the Halifax Fire Service amalgamated all fire stations in Halifax County, and the department became HRM — Station 51. Its members became integrated with the members of Station 50 in what was formerly Lower Hammonds Plains.
Over time, Gina Jones Wilson said members from the original department retired and the department had a hard time recruiting youth and new members.
“After that, with injuries and age, the last two members which were myself and the chief [Wendell David], we left, so it was mostly run by Station 50 [out of Lower Hammonds Plains], which didn’t have any community involvement,” she said.
“I just know the visibility was reduced,” said Anderson said. “We weren’t as active, a lot of the training took place at the newer facility … and then it just seemed to be less and less and less, to where we eventually closed entirely.”
In 2013, Station 51 out of Upper Hammonds Plains was one of several smaller fire stations in the HRM that closed.
“I was devastated when we lost ownership of the building,” said Anderson. “The building has always been a landmark in our community. It’s a historic building, it’s Canadian history, it’s North American history. So the idea that the community did not own it, did not own clear title to it, possession of it, it just grieved my heart really.”
Jones-Wilson said the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Development Association learned the building would be going up for sale.
“That’s when we reached out to them to see if the community would have the right to have first dibs to get the building back considering that HRM never paid for it, [and] never paid for the land,” she said.
Repurpose, on purpose, with purpose
A proposal put in by the Upper Hammonds Plains Community Development Association was eventually accepted and in 2020 the city gave back the building. Wilson-Jones said the goal now is to raise funds to turn it into a recreation and arts centre and name it after Elizabeth Mantley.
A video promoting the initiative is on YouTube.
Anderson said he’s confident youth in the community will make use of the space once it’s built.
“This is not the grandparents telling the children: ‘Oh, you guys should go down there,’” Anderson said.
He said the space the youth currently use is inadequate, and that young people were consulted early on about the future layout and design.
“They were part of the brainstorming, the vision casting. So I think we got buy-in from day one.”
“And I said to Gina, ‘Yes! I believe that we need to repurpose the space on purpose, with purpose,’” said Anderson. “And she said, ‘I love that theme: Repurpose on purpose with purpose.’”
The video promoting the fundraising campaign was played during last Sunday’s service at Emmanuel Baptist, which was also livestreamed to the church’s YouTube channel.
When it was finished, Anderson preached the story of how Elizabeth Mantley gave her land for free so that “homes and lives could be preserved.” He then called on Doreen Mantley to honour her on her mother’s behalf.
“Today we thank you and your family for preserving our lives, for giving us land so that we can have a future for our children. We want to rise up and call your mother blessed by giving her the naming rights of the Elizabeth Mantley Art and Youth Recreation Centre.“
Members of the church presented Doreen Mantley with flowers and a fruit basket before she took to the mic to offer remarks.
“My family and I would like to thank you, everyone who worked to keep the fire department in the community, and for the recognition today. Love and blessings from me and my family. And thank you Pastor Anderson,” she said.