Royal E. Towns and his colleagues with Engine Company No. 22 of the racially segregated Oakland Fire Department. (1943) 1

Royal Edward Towns (February 10, 1899 – July 23, 1990) was one of the first Black firefighters in Oakland, and was instrumental in helping desegregate the fire department. Towns was born in Oakland in 1899, and when denied union membership in his factory job because of his race, went to work as a railroad porter. He took the fire department application test and easily passed (he was an intelligent young man, and spoke three languages), but because of his race, his application needed a nudge from his former employer. He helped train many other black applicants to pass the test, and was scoutmaster for a Boy Scout troop that included Sam Golden, who went on to become the first Black fire chief in Oakland.

A paper at the University of California, Berkeley transcribed part of an interview with Towns of a tape recorded oral history interview conducted by Pamela Morton in 1981, Oakland Neighborhood History Project, Oakland Public Library, 1996. p.30:

[His former employer] says, ‘Well, what are you doing on here?’
I said, ‘Well, they found out I was black.’ So I said, ‘I had a hard time getting in the unions and things like that.’
And he said, ‘Is this the best you could get?’
I said, ‘No.’ I says, ‘I took the post office examination, the police department examination, and the fire department examination.’
He says, ‘Which one do you want?’
I says, ‘I would like to have the fire department job.’
‘Well,’ he says, ‘you come and see me tomorrow up at the Niles Athenian Club.’
So I went down … there to see Mr. Gross. ‘Well, Mr. Gross, here I am.’
He says, “Well, wait a minute, I’m going to call the head of the Public Health and Safety over there.” And so we called ‘em up, Frank Corbett was the man in charge. Says, “Hello, Frank?…I’ve got a very good friend of mine,’ he says, ‘used to work for me. And he’s got a family and everything and he’s taking a job at the fire department. I’d like to know when he’s going to get appointed….Oh,” he says, “on February the 14th, huh? All right,” he says, “now you take care of him. That’s my boy!”
So that was the end of that. So I got my job at the Fire Department.

According to Images of America: Oakland Fire Department, Towns joined the OFD in 1927 and was assigned to Engine Company No. 22, a segregated firehouse in West Oakland, located at 3320 Magnolia St. After collecting data showing African Americans were being promoted in other cities, Towns became the first to be promoted in the OFD. He became a chief's operator in 1941 and retired as a lieutenant in 1962.

Personal Life

Royal Towns was born in Oakland on February 10, 1899, to William Towns and Elizabeth Scott. Elizabeth Scott was the widow of King Clark. Census records show 5 of her older children living with William and Elizabeth. They lived in various locations in Oakland: in 1900 at 1449R - 5th Street; in 1910 at 1659 - 5th Street; and in 1920 at 1611 - 16th Street. The 1900 census lists William as a Pullman Porter.

Towns married Lucille Dennis May 26, 1920. Together they had three children; Mary Towns (Adams) (1921-?), Gloria Towns (Wilson)(Blackburn) (1923-1995), and Royal Towns, Jr, (1926-1994). The family lived in various locations within Oakland: in 1926 at 697 - 27th Street; in 1930 at 718 - 35th Street; and in 1940 at 718 - 35th Street.

Royal Towns, Jr. went to sea at age 18, and sailed all over the world, first as an ordinary seaman then later as an able seaman. Gloria was the first wife of mayor Lionel Wilson, and the mother of his 3 sons.

Towns was active in the Prince Hall Freemasons.

Death and Burial

Royal E. Towns died July 23, 1990 and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Plot 54, Grave #1915. As of 2/10/2013 there is no marker visible, but a work order has been placed to see if there is one and raise it. Update 2/15: found! Sites #1913, #1914 and #1915 were all purchased by Lucille, and various other people are buried in the graves.

site # #1915 #1914 #1913
Hope W. Dennis
Royal E. Towns, Sr.
Lucille D. Towns
Harold S. Adams, Sr.
Annie Benjamin
Mary Jane Dennis
our darling
Tremaine Wilson



Gladd O. Dennis


OK for Mrs. H.E. Ferguson (1931)

OK for Mary + Gloria (1966)

OK for Hope Dennis (1987)

OK for Albert Benjamin (1931+20yrs)

OK for Mary + Gloria (1966)


OK for Mary + Gloria (1966)



Interesting coincidence: the woman who helped me with research at Mountain View lives next door to where Sam Golden and his wife lived.

Links and References

  1. Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room and Maps Division
  2. African American Museum & Library death record

  3. Daniels, Douglas Henry. Pioneer Urbanites: A Social and Cultural History of Black San Francisco. University of California Press: 1990.

Royal Towns as a child
photo from Our Oakland

Royal Towns as a child 3