Arlington Heights recognizes first Black resident -- a 19th century firefighter, barber

  • Frank White, Arlington Heights' first Black resident, was president and charter member of the village's original volunteer fire department. He will be honored with a display in village hall.

    Frank White, Arlington Heights' first Black resident, was president and charter member of the village's original volunteer fire department. He will be honored with a display in village hall. Courtesy of Village of Arlington Heights

  • Frank White, seated far right, is pictured with fellow members of the Arlington Heights Volunteer Fire Department in 1933. A year later, the department would honor the charter member and one-time president with lifetime membership upon his retirement.

    Frank White, seated far right, is pictured with fellow members of the Arlington Heights Volunteer Fire Department in 1933. A year later, the department would honor the charter member and one-time president with lifetime membership upon his retirement. Courtesy of Arlington Heights Historical Museum

  • Frank White, middle of the top row, is pictured in 1904 with the Arlington Heights Volunteer Fire Department Hose Co. No. 1.

    Frank White, middle of the top row, is pictured in 1904 with the Arlington Heights Volunteer Fire Department Hose Co. No. 1. Courtesy of Arlington Heights Historical Museum

 
 
Posted1/25/2021 5:30 AM

In many of the old, yellowed photographs from the early days of the Arlington Heights Fire Department stands Frank White, a charter member elected by his fellow firefighters as president of what started in 1894 as an all-volunteer department.

"He posed as they did: stiffly and self-consciously. His walrus mustache was full, drooping at the sides in the classic 'soup-strainer' style of the day," wrote Dick Hoffmann in a Sept. 28, 1961, Daily Herald article.

 

The firefighter did differ from the others in one particular way: his race.

As village leaders today work to complete a diversity, equity and inclusion project, they're looking to the past for inspiration, with plans to honor the man who was the first Black resident of Arlington Heights.

White -- a leader in the fire department's infancy, proprietor of a series of successful barbershops, and political figure -- is "a very special individual in Arlington Heights history, for certain," said Mayor Tom Hayes.

Village staff, led by Village Manager Randy Recklaus, are doing additional research on White's life and gathering artifacts and photos in hopes of developing a display that will celebrate his life and contributions to the community.

The display will be placed initially in village hall, before moving two doors down to the fire department headquarters, where other relics from the department's early days are kept.

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As part of their research, Recklaus and his staff are working with the Arlington Heights Historical Museum and consulting newspaper clippings and two books on the village's history.

One of those books, Recklaus said, noted that White's barbershops were regular hangouts for civic-minded people in town, where the latest local political gossip could always be found. As a result, White's predictions on who would win the next local election were considered to be "infallible," according to the book.

White, a staunch Republican, sometimes took as long as 45 minutes to shave a customer in order to learn his political inclinations, Al Volz, the one-time mayor, GOP state representative and committeeman, recalled in the 1961 Daily Herald article.

Volz declared that "there was never any racial feeling against him" among the townspeople.

It's believed White came to Arlington Heights with his wife, Fanny, in 1888, and helped start the fire department six years later. At four decades of service, White resigned and was honored with an honorary lifetime membership in the department.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Mark Aleckson, the department's public education officer, recently found those records contained within handwritten log books in the fire station's archives.

"They are old but in decent shape considering their age," he said.

White left town shortly after his wife -- a talented artist who specialized in oil paintings -- passed away in 1947. The couple didn't have children. He went to live with his niece, and died in 1953 at the age of 90 at Lake Forest Infirmary. Funeral services were held in his birthplace of downstate Geneseo.

"(He's) an important figure in our history that many people probably know little about," Recklaus said.

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