Remembering Fallen Black Firefighter Edward Peed

Published 6:00 am Sunday, February 12, 2023

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EDITOR’S NOTE: In recognition of Black History Month, with the assistance of Leesa Jones, director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum, Clark Curtis will take a closer look at some of the people, places, and events that have helped mold the story of Washington. The stories being shared are all part Jones’ African American Walking History Tour of Washington. Black history is one of the cornerstones of the towns’ deep and rich history. 

February 8th of this year marked the 121st anniversary of the tragic death of Washington firefighter Edward (Ed) Peed. It was on that day in 1902 that the 46-year-old Peed, a Nozzleman for the Salamander Fire Company, succumbed to his injuries, while fighting a huge blaze at the Atlantic Coast Line Freight Warehouse located on Washington’s waterfront. 

Peed and his crew arrived at the scene at approximately 5:25 pm on that fateful evening. Shortly after 9pm Peed was spraying water on the burning rubble when suddenly, and without warning, the western wall of the Hoyt Building collapsed on him. “He suffered massive chest injuries from the fallen brick wall,” said Jones. “Dr. Joshua Tayloe tried to administer lifesaving efforts, but Peeds’ injuries proved to be too serious and he died at the scene. He was the first recorded fireman to have died in the line of duty here in Washington. And as far as records show, he was the first Black fireman in North Carolina to die in the line of duty.”

Peeds’ death sent a shockwave throughout the town. The fire in which he died was the second largest fire in downtown Washington. Many historians have said the fire, which lit up the night sky, was almost as large and devastating as the burning of downtown Washington during the Civil War. “Peeds’ funeral service brought people from all over Beaufort County,” said Jones. “He was buried with honors in a high service performed by the local firemen and Masons. His death was long honored at Black Firemen Conventions, by Black Firemen, and countless associations and parades for many years.” 

At the time Dr. Tayloe also expressed the need to honor Peed. The Board of Town Commissioners agreed and proposed his family receive a lifetime pension.

In 1881, the Salamander Fire Company was chartered in the town of Washington. This all black volunteer company was highly prized and was composed of the most outstanding Black men in the community. “The members wore red helmets and would sing as they operated their hand pumps,” said Jones. “This was a way for them to coordinate while working a fire. The company was led by Professor Sylvester Dibble, who, with a partner, operated the only barber shop in Washington.”

By 1904 there were 201 volunteer firefighters in Washington, of whom 115 were Black. The fire equipment consisted of one Silsby steam engine, one small hand engine, two large hands engine, five two-wheel hose carts, one supply wagon, and one hook and ladder wagon.

Peed had been an outstanding member of the Salamander Fire Company for over 20 years at the time of his death. He also served as the Salamander’s Treasurer. He was, in addition, a member of the Washington City Council in 1883-1889, serving alongside John Humphrey Small, and other council members. Peed was also appointed Registrar for a Ward of the Black Community where he lived on West 3rd Street between Van Norden and Gladden Streets.

Historical records indicate a monument was erected by the white citizens of Washington, in dedication to his service to the community. And to this day it stands at the current fire station located at the corner of 5th and Market Streets. It reads: “Edward Peed, Born March 1, 1855 & Died February 8, 1902. A member of the Salamander Fire Company for over 20 years. He died at the post of duty. Erected by the white citizens of Washington, North Carolina in appreciation of his faithfulness.”

In 1997 Charles T. Yates, a Washington volunteer fireman from 1951-1976, began the search for the grave of Peed. After a long and tireless effort he finally found the headstone in the old all Black Fairview Cemetery on Bridge Street. “The stone had been pushed over by vandals, but he was able to read the inscription, with Peeds’ name,” said Jones. “Peeds’ death had been long forgotten over the years until Yates completed his search. His name is now a part of the history of the Washington Fire Department.”

Several local historical groups have tried over the years to secure a North Carolina Highway Historical Marker for Peed with no success. However, Jones said efforts continue to this day by two Washington historical groups, who have applied for markers from other organizations to honor his life.

Peeds’ story is part of the Black Leaders and Legends Tour of the African American History Tour of Washington.