The upbeat technicolor rendition of the story of Molly Willaims in this video, New York’s first female firefighter, is infinitely more upbeat and jolly than the reality. It skates right over the most important fact about Molly’s life. She was a slave owned by Benjamon Aymer, a wealthy NYC businessman.
As a slave, her life was lived at the order of her owner. The only exception to that appears to have been her most heroic feat for which she is remembered today. Her connection to firefighting was initially entirely at Benjamin’s order. One version says she was loaned by him to be the firehouse cook for his volunteer squad, Oceanus Engine Co 11 in Lower Manhattan near Zuccotti Park. Another version says she attended the firehouse as Aymar’s servant, looking after whatever needs he had as a volunteer firefighter.
Then a potential fire disaster in 1818. One of New York’s famous blizzards had blanketed the city in snow. At the same time an influenza outbreak struck so disastrously that every single male volunteer in Aymer’s squad was unavailable when a fire broke out and a call for help was made.
Molly answered the call and pulled the heavy pumper single handedly through the snowy streets to the site of the fire where presumably others helped her use it to put out the fire.
This was a heroic and committed act by Molly Williams not to mention testament to her strength and endurance, but only the deed itself is recorded not her subsequent history. I think we can assume she was not freed. However the attitude of the FDNY, brave and wonderful as they are in so many ways has not always been so in relation to women, despite Molly’s example of being up to the job. It was another 164 years before women were employed by the FDNY and only then because a group of women brought a landmark discrimiantion case against them and they were forced to hire the first paid women firefighters in NYPD.