The new St. Paul Fire Department headquarters and Station 1 is now named The William and Alfred Godette Memorial Building. It was formally commissioned and opened September 10.
Brothers William and Alfred Godette joined the Capitol City’s fire department over a century ago. Older brother William joined in 1885 and rose through the ranks to captain during his 41 years of service. Younger brother Alfred joined later, in 1909, and died fighting a fire in 1921.
The Godette brothers were two of an estimated 20 Black firefighters at the time who worked mostly separate from their White counterparts. “At the time they worked here, the department was segregated,” explains Al Boney, who has been a St. Paul firefighter since 2002.
“They weren’t allowed to work at any of the other stations, and probably didn’t come to [fire] headquarters often.”
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman spoke at the commissioning ceremony for the new $15 million headquarters and fire station attended by over 100 persons, including direct descendents of the Godettes. “William was the first Black lieutenant and captain in the St. Paul Fire Department,” Coleman said, “and the first Black captain in the nation.
“His younger brother Alfred joined the department in 1909 and was later promoted to pipeman. He was killed in the line of duty in December 1921, responding to an alarm. We should always remember what they meant to the department and how many doors they opened for others,” said Coleman.
“It’s pretty fascinating history that was lost and recently discovered,” admits Boney. Almost two years ago, he recalls, “I stumbled upon a photo in the history room at Fire Station No. 9 and came across a picture from 1920 of an all-Black crew [of 10 firemen]. That led me on this investigation to find out who these people were and the story behind them. The more I found out, the more incredible the story became.”
St. Paul NAACP President Nathaniel Khaliq, himself a retired Black firefighter, said he wrote letters on behalf of the branch to both Coleman and St. Paul Fire Chief Timothy Butler in support of naming the new building after the Godette brothers. “We want to thank the mayor and the chief for having the courage, vision and the wisdom to acknowledge the dedication and commitment of these two brothers,” he said.
On naming the new building after the two brothers, Khaliq said, “It’s appropriate because their history was buried from many of us when I joined in 1981. It’s an opportunity for many of the young folk to see these two brothers as an inspiration. We can only imagine what they went through at that time in our history, but they hung in there and served [the city] well. They all will know that many of us, especially the Godette brothers, were a part of that history.”
Annette McGee Wright, great-granddaughter of William and great-grandniece of Alfred, said that her late mother spent the later part of her life, before she passed away in 1988, researching family background.
Inspired by Alex Haley’s Roots, she “gathered a lot of raw data” on their ancestors’ rich but hidden history.
Before becoming firemen, the brothers Godette worked a variety of jobs, including cattle rancher (William) and expert draftsman (Alfred). “Both were well educated,” Wright said proudly. “Both of these men [as firefighters] gave dedicated service and sacrifice, with Alfred making the greatest sacrifice – his life. May this building be a symbol of the best fire department to protect life and property in St. Paul, and may it be a symbol of fairness.”
“We knew all about ‘Captain Billy’s’ contributions, but now more people outside of his era and time know,” added Wright’s sister, Frances McGee Cromartie.
“I [am] very grateful to the City of St. Paul to name their headquarters after my great-great grandfather,” said Chris Adams, one of four great-great grandchildren who live in St. Paul.
The Godettes “represent the values and virtues that all firefighters and all public servants should exemplify,” said Chief Butler. By naming the department headquarters after them, he added, “I believe that will bring some healing and some understanding to our department about our history and the contributions the Black firefighters have made”
“As we move into the 21st century, to move into the new fire headquarters [named] after two Black firefighters is a milestone,” Fire Captain Darrill Berry pointed out.
“We’re not always recognized [for] the work that African Americans have put into this profession over the years,” said Michael Perry, a 12-year veteran Minneapolis fireman who was among several Black firefighters from both Twin Cities at the ceremony.
“It is really special to finally get some sort of recognition for the service that African Americans have done,” added fellow Minneapolis fireman Timothy Baynard.
“It’s a good statement,” said Minneapolis Fire Capt. Melanie Rucker.
Khaliq concluded, “I think everybody wins in this, not only for our [Black] children to know about the history of these brothers and what they endured, but also children of other races need to know that back then the fire department wasn’t just made up of the Irish, Swedes and the Italians. There were some brothers who also paid their dues.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record er.com.