Floyd Elbert Newsum Sr. blazed an historic trail as one of the first 12 African-American firefighters to serve Memphis. Last Friday, the City of Memphis Fire Department command staff saluted him for the last time during funeral services at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church.
The revered elder was 86. He was the last living pioneer in that inaugural class.
Mr. Newsum and 11 of his “brothers” graduated the Firefighters Academy to serve at Fire Station 8, located at 832 Mississippi Blvd. It had been the most grueling and arduous three months of their lives, enough to push men of great fortitude to their limit.
Training for the first 12 African-American firefighters began under an all-white staff on July 11, 1955. Joe V. Lowry, a public safety and city government historian in Memphis, wrote of their harrowing experience:
“These men had to endure more than what any regular, white firefighter was asked to do. The drill instructors assigned to train them told those men that they didn’t care if they passed or not and that they didn’t even want them there.”
With 12 families depending on them, quitting was not an option; neither was failure. It was the first time African Americans had been given the chance to serve in the fire department. The African-American community was pulling for them all – to stay, to endure and to persevere. The backdrop was blatant racism, humiliations and the open hostility of firefighters and other Memphians who supported racial segregation.
They got through, all 12 of them. Pioneers who served valiantly and came to command the respect of the entire department.
“I have seen some very wonderful celebrations of life during my career,” said Brandon Maurice Berry, funeral director at M.J. Edwards Funeral Home in Whitehaven. “But this one for Mr. Newsum was one that shed light on his legacy and his love for both the Mid-South and the African-American community.
“Memphis Fire Department commanders, members of the Pioneer Black Firefighters Association, and rank-and-file firefighters – they all came with one mind and heart: to honor him one last time. It was quite a spectacle, worthy of such a great man.”
Mr. Newsum was born October 12, 1932 in his childhood home at 9 North Willet St. in Memphis. He was the ninth and last child of Lucious and Mary McFadden Newsum.
He met and married Evelyn LaMondue before graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in 1951. The couple had three children: Floyd Jr., Ike and Vickie.
His work history began at the Admiral Benbow Inn as a waiter, distinguishing himself as a hard worker with a strong work ethic. Four years after graduating high school, Mr. Newsum applied and was chosen to train in the first class of African-American firefighters. He later retired as Division Chief in 1989, after 32 years of service.
As a humanitarian and mentor, Mr. Newsum served an advisor for Neighborhood Boys Clubs, Auxiliary Probation Officer for Juvenile Court and Project First Offender. Having served as a volunteer counselor at the Shelby County Penal Farm, he was subsequently employed in that capacity from 1971-1974.
In 1972, Mr. Newsum founded the Newsum Annex, an Ex-offender Service Agency, providing shelter, employment and counseling for ex-offenders. He was active in Memphis politics, having worked in the campaigns of now historic Memphis figures such as A.W. Willis, Odell Horton, Maxine Smith and Otis Higgs Jr.
A member of the International Halfway House Association and NAACP, he served as a volunteer in MANNA Outreach of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, delivering food to those in need.
Mr. Newsum is survived by his three children, six grandchildren, three great-grandchildren and a host of other relatives and friends.