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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — November 2022: Molly Williams

Born into slavery circa 1747, Molly Williams is recognized as the first female firefighter in the United States. While a slave to the wealthy Aymar family, she met and married her husband, Peter Williams. In 1783, Aymar sold the Williamses to Wesley Chapel, the first incarnation of the John Street United Methodist Church in Manhattan’s Financial District. The Williams family lived in the basement of the church as indentured servants with Peter serving as the sexton in charge of buildings, maintenance, and grave digging and Molly cooking and cleaning. They had a son, Peter Jr., and eventually bought their freedom.

Mrs. Williams continued to work for Aymar as a servant after she became a free woman. In 1815, Aymar became a volunteer in Lower Manhattan’s fledgling firefighting corps, Oceanus Engine Co. 11. Fires broke out frequently and those most affected were those with the most property, so many wealthy merchants took part in the firefighting corps out of self-interest. Mrs. Williams would accompany Aymar when he went to work at Oceanus Engine Co. 11. Initially, she cooked meals, cleaned the station and cared for the crew when outbreaks of flu, yellow fever, and cholera erupted. However, in time she would replace the sick crew, fighting fires in their stead.

There was a great blizzard in New York in 1818. Between the blizzard and a great influenza outbreak, many male volunteers were unable to work. At the age of 71, Mrs. Williams took the place of the sick men and worked at the firehouse. The members of the firehouse credited her for being as tough as the male firefighters. During the blizzard, Mrs. Williams answered a call that came into the firehouse and “pump[ed] out as much [water with as much] strength as all the men.” Mrs. Williams was remembered for pulling the pumper to fires through heavy snow during that blizzard. Her commitment earned her the name “Volunteer 11.” Often seen fighting fires in a dress and checkered apron, she was known for her distinguished presence and attire. Her fellow firefighters described Mrs. Williams to be “as good a fire laddie as many of the boys.”

Mrs. Williams died in 1821 at the age of 74. George W. Sheldon wrote in the 1882 oral history The Story of the Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York, that Molly Williams was “one of the most famous ‘volunteers’ of the earlier days.” Though there is very little known about her personal life, her firefighting efforts remain an important part of women’s history and Black history and paved the way for all female firefighters.


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