Friends and family on Monday called Hazel Erwin, Charlotte’s first Black firefighter, “a legend” for breaking the department’s color barrier and saving the lives of many in his seven years of service.
“Great firefighter, but an even greater human being,” David Taylor, the second Black firefighter hired by the Charlotte Fire Department, said about Erwin during his funeral at New Waves of Joy Baptist Church.
Hazel Eugene Erwin died in Charlotte on May 8 after a battle with cancer. He was 77.
“He had a life well lived,” Taylor said. “I’ll miss him. He made a tremendous contribution to this community.”
Erwin, then 23 years old, joined the CFD on Oct. 18, 1967, and was assigned to Fire Station 1. He became the first Black firefighter in the department’s 80-year history.
A 1963 graduate of Second Ward High School, Erwin also served as a firefighter in U.S. Air Force for a year. He served at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro and later at Cam Ranh Bay in South Vietnam before being honorably discharged on Christmas Day 1966.
Erwin was Charlotte’s only Black firefighter until Taylor joined in 1971.
Adams said Erwin dealt with racism within the department — including other fire stations locking the doors when he visited, and firefighters throwing firecrackers at him while he showered.
“Can you imagine a 23-year-old man having to go through some of the things that Hazel went through?” asked Earl Adams, who became Charlotte’s third Black firefighter in 1972.
Erwin gave advice to Taylor and Adams. He emphasized being on time for work and not doing anything on- or off-duty that would hinder their careers, Adams said.
“Erwin was a wealth of knowledge,” Adams said.
After leaving CFD in March 1974, Erwin worked as a Trailways Bus driver before becoming a truck driver. Once retired, he spent his time traveling and enjoying his family and friends.
Although people applauded Erwin for integrating the CFD, he never wanted the recognition.
“He had a humility that I only aspire to,” Taylor said. “It was never about him, it was about the cause and the service.”
Hazel Erwin ‘opened the doors’
Retired Charlotte firefighter Kay Blake said Erwin “opened the doors” for him and other Black firefighters.
“It was just a wonderful feeling to say, ‘I know this guy,’” Blake said.
Fire Chief Reginald Johnson said Erwin lived a life a service and was a dedicated family man. Although Erwin did help Black firefighters, he was also trailblazer for women and other races, Johnson said.
“Erwin was a humble man, a man of integrity, a man of courage, a hard worker and just wanted to do the right thing,” Johnson said. “I’m sure we can all agree that he has done the right thing.”
Erwin is survived by his partner, Oraphilia Dargan; two sons, Daryl Erwin and Julius Jackson; two daughters, Pamela and Zaneta Erwin; 12 grandchildren; one great-grandchild; and a sister, Hattie E. Culbreth.