Essex Carrington is listed in the 1870 United States Census for Austin, Texas as a 36 year old, black male, born in Louisiana and employed as a carpenter. According to census records, Essex could read but not write, was married, and had five children. Little is known for certain about Essex´s life before he moved to Austin, however, given the era and location it can be assumed that he was most likely a slave. This is further supported by the fact that his name is not found in the 1860 census as a freeman of color. If Carrington moved from Louisiana to Texas after the Civil War, the reasons are unclear. It is possible that he moved before the war or had lived a number of places, however, descendants of Essex Carrington and his wife, Caroline, maintain that their family "came from Louisiana."
Essex Carrington appears in most sources as one of the earliest known residents of Clarksville, a small "freedom town" or freedmen´s colony just West of Austin. The most specific information is found in the National Register Listing for the Clarksville Historic District which states that Essex Carrington bought land on Waterson Street from Max Mass on December 9, 1872. The town of Clarksville is very important in local African American history. The community was founded by a freed slave, Charles Clark in 1871 and quickly attracted other freedmen who had the means to purchase property. Aside from Clark and Carrington, the community became home to local minister and church founder, Jacob Fontaine, and state legislator, Elias Mayes.
The majority of the existing external documents are unclear on what position Essex held within the Fire Company. The National Register Listing for the Clarksville Historic District states that "Mr. Carrington worked on the Negro staff of the Washington Hose Company, an early fire department." Since the Washington Company was a volunteer fire company the words "worked" and "staff" imply that Essex was a paid employee–such as a cook, janitor, or maintenance man. Though the fire department was considered a volunteer department until 1916, many of the companies paid employees. Most often, the paid employee was the driver who, aside from driving and maintaining the equipment, was responsible for living at the fire station and "keeping house." There is no evidence that Essex Carrington ever worked as a driver or as any other type of paid employee of the fire company.
Senate Resolution No. 41, honoring the Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church provides a different, but equally questionable, interpretation of Essex’s role: “[t]he members of the Carrington family of Clarksville were founding members of this community and this neighborhood church; Essex Carrington was the father of the Reverend Albert Carrington and the first known black hoseman for the Austin Fire Department station number 10, located on Blanco Street at that time." It is true that Essex was a founding member of Clarksville and his son Albert was a minister at Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church. Referring to Essex Carrington as a “hoseman" is probably accurate; most men in a steam engine company worked the hoses before moving up to positions such as driver, engineer, and fireman. The remainder of this statement, however, is an amalgamation of false information. “Austin Fire Department station number 10" was not in existence during Essex Carrington’s life, nor was it ever located on Blanco Street. Fire Station number 10 was not built until 1938 and was located on Windsor Road in far West Austin. The only fire station which was ever located on Blanco Street was built in 1905 by West Austin Fire Company No. 7, it was later renamed Station No. 4 by the city Fire Department. Essex Carrington could not possibly have served at either Station 10 or Station 4—both were built after his death and neither was operated by the Washington Steam Fire Engine Company. Where this information came from is a mystery, most likely family history became confused over the generations.
When and how Essex came to be a member of the Washington Company remains a mystery. There are existing charters and by-laws for a number of the volunteer fire companies in Austin which give a general idea of how new members were selected and admitted. They all state that a citizen of Austin wishing to join a fire company must submit a letter stating their application for membership as well as a letter of recommendation. Most companies stated requirements such as prospective members must be employed, of high moral character and good civic standing—none gave specific restrictions pertaining to race, occupation or social status. Once the prospective member submitted the necessary letter and recommendations, the membership committee would review them for eligibility. If deemed eligible, the company would vote on whether or not to extend admission. Most company’s by-laws state that more than three or four nays from the company would exclude a prospective member; and they would be ineligible to reapply for 6 months or a year.
Essex is not listed among the original founding members of the Washington Company (1868) but is listed on an existing 1877 roster and was an active member by the Company’s tenth anniversary in 1878. The occasion was commemorated with a ceremony and parade; Essex Carrington was among the members who convened on October 8, 1878 at the company’s Engine Room and marched to their Company Hall. Obviously, he must have gone through the application process at some point during the intervening ten years. If he did, indeed, move to Austin between 1867 and 1870, he must have become a member relatively soon after arriving in town. Given that the Washington Company was known throughout its history as “the kid glove company" because it was composed of the most well-to-do and influential men in town, it is perplexing that a black man, probably a former slave, who only recently moved from Louisiana to Austin, became a member. While there is currently no clear explanation for how or why Essex became a member of the Washington Company, it is possible to examine Essex’s position and status within the company.
An incident which occurred in November of 1887 gives one view of Essex Carrington’s relationship with his fellow firemen. At the monthly meeting on November 2nd, 1887, Essex Carrington reported that his horse was dead and in consequence thereof he was unable to render the assistance at fires that he would like. He asked of the Company a loan of Ten Dollars with which to buy another horse. Mr. Nagle moved that instead of lending Essex the money each member present donate something for that purpose.
Mr. Nagle’s motion carried and the men present raised a total of $10.05. After being presented with the money, Essex Carrington “thanked the company in an appropriate speech." At first glance, this incident reveals a decidedly paternalistic relationship. Rather than honor Essex’s request for a loan, the men of the Washington Company simply provided for him, as they would a child. It is impossible to determine for certain whether Essex Carrington was a “charity case" or whether it was common for the firemen to help each other out financially. Given that volunteer fire companies generally operated similarly to other fraternal orders, it seems most likely that this was standard practice. No other documented cases have been found where the Washington Company provided financial support to one of its members. The practice, however, was not unheard of, Protection Hose Company No. 3 took up a collection to benefit their driver, Peter Kroger, after his home and belongings (and their firehouse) burned down.
Essex was in his late 30s when he joined the company and was probably close to 60 when he died. According to the Oakwood Cemetery records, “Essey Carrington" (this misspelling is probably only an error in the database, a hand written ´X’ could easily resemble a ´Y’) was buried in lot 133 on February 21, 1892. He is listed as a native of Kentucky, negro, and was buried by “friends" after suffering a “cancer affliction of bowels" and being treated by M.A. Taylor. Additionally, the “remarks" field says “East 12 St." which verifies that this is the same person. Essex Carrington is listed in the 1889-1890 City Directory as residing at 302 E. 12th Street. The fact that Essex Carrington was buried “by friends" reveals two things. First, it explains the misinformation. It is reasonable that Essex’s friends would not have known exactly how old he was or where he was from, originally. Second, it further reveals Essex Carrington’s social status and support network. None of Essex Carrington’s family are buried in Oakwood Cemetery; Leonidas D. Carrington and his wife as well as many other Washington Company members (or their children) are buried there. While this is far from conclusive, it implies that Essex Carrington’s burial was organized and probably paid for by his friends or his fellow firemen.
This possibility is supported by a number of incidents reported in the Washington Company Meeting Minutes prior to and immediately following Essex Carrington’s death. At the Company meeting on November 4th of 1891, “The foreman reported Essex Carrington Sick. And on motion of Mr. Brush The Sick Committee were instructed to provide for him." Obviously, the company had a system in place to care for sick, injured or elderly members when in need. Essex Carrington was not a charity case, the fact that the company had an established “Sick Committee" reveals that they would have extended the same financial assistance to any member in need. Several months later on February 3, 1892 “Foreman Feigel reported that the Committee had been paying $9.00 a week for the support of Essex Carrington." A motion by the Treasurer approved these payments. Firemen during the volunteer years were not paid, in fact they were required to pay monthly dues to maintain membership, yet, like any fraternal order or private club, there were clearly returns. Poor and working class men could have been effectively excluded from fire companies by the lack of pay for their time and the required payment of membership dues. However, like insurance, the returns on membership seem to be worth the cost when a member became ill or died.
Essex Carrington died shortly after the February meeting and the company honored him with a Resolution read during the April meeting:
Whereas, It has pleased Almighty God to remove from our Company our worthy Steward and fellow member, Essex Carrington, therefore, be it Resolved that we deplore his death and feel that we have lost an earnest worker and faithful servant who by his long and earnest service deservedly won the sincere respect and esteem of Washington Steam Fire Engine Co. No. 1 of the Austin Fire Department.
Touching as this resolution is, there is one detail which stands out, and that is the use of the word “servant." The Washington Company Meeting Minutes contain a number of other resolutions marking the deaths of members—none of which contain the phrase “faithful servant." Obviously Essex was well liked and respected by his fellow firemen, but the specific phrasing implies that perhaps his status was less than equal. Of course, since this resolution would have been written by one or two members of the company it may not be a fair representation of the feelings of all the members.