When he enlisted in the Air Force, serving as a tech sergeant during Vietnam, Russell Hobson sent his civilian clothes back home to Southold.
He addressed the package only to Jed, Southold, New York. It found its way straight to his father, Gerald “Jed” Hobson.
The elder Mr. Hobson, who died a month shy of his 60th birthday in 1970, was someone everyone in town knew. A “pillar of the community,” as longtime Southold resident Peggy Murphy called him this week.
In the more than 45 years since his death, however, there’s a piece of Mr. Hobson’s history that has faded from local lore. The former Southold Fire Department lieutenant is believed to have been the first black volunteer fireman in Suffolk County.
After a reporter contacted him last week at his home in Bellevue, Neb., Russell Hobson called his relatives on Long Island to inquire further.
Their response surprised even him.
“They said, ‘Yes, that’s true,’ ” he later said. “That’s something I’m really just finding out now.”
Perhaps Jed Hobson’s place in history has been lost because it was something nobody made a big deal about while he was alive. Or maybe it was because he didn’t give much thought to such things himself.
An article published in The Suffolk Times in 1965 made no mention of Mr. Hobson as the first local black volunteer fireman. In the article, he said he didn’t think of himself as a black fireman at all, “just a fireman.”
In a Black History Month feature published by the Times in 1991, Mr. Hobson, who was born in 1910, is briefly mentioned as having joined the Packard Hose Co. in the 1930s, rising to the rank of lieutenant.
“He is believed to have been the first black fireman in Suffolk County,” the article states, stopping short of handing him the distinction outright.
Several Southold Fire Department volunteers who served alongside him say they believe it to be true. Longtime Southold resident Nan Morris, whose late husband, Daysman, counted Mr. Hobson as a friend, said she’s fairly certain Mr. Hobson was the first black fireman on the entire East End.
“As for all of Suffolk County, I really couldn’t say,” she said.
Those who knew Mr. Hobson remember him as a gentle man who dedicated his life to faith, family and community service. He worked for more than 40 years as a master mechanic at the Koke Bros. garage in Southold, where he was hired at the age of 14.
Mr. Hobson was also very active in the local chapter of Boy Scouts of America. In 1960, he was presented the Silver Beaver, an award given to adult leaders who have an impact on the lives of youths. Five years earlier, the former Watchman newspaper recognized Mr. Hobson for teaching scouting principles to 15 teenage sons of migrant workers at the former Cutchogue labor camp, each of whom he took on a camping trip.
In 1954, Mr. Hobson was the first black man honored with the Southold Rotary’s Citizenship Award for his work to “protect the lives and the property of human beings,” according to the Watchman.
“He was a kind man and he was very well thought of,” Ms. Murphy said.
Mr. Hobson also served as trustee president, Sunday School volunteer and choir member at Unity Baptist Church in Mattituck, where his father, the Rev. Willis Hobson, was the first official pastor.
Bob Kaelin of Riverhead, who joined the Southold Fire Department in 1950 while still in high school, remembers Mr. Hobson as a veteran fireman whom the younger members looked up to. He said Mr. Hobson used his master mechanic skills to keep the company’s Maxin pumper running just right.
“He was just a wonderful guy,” Mr. Kaelin recalled.
When Mr. Hobson wasn’t busy working, volunteering with the fire department, serving his church, playing recreational sports or in the community band, he was equally dedicated to his family. He and his wife, Mary, took in eight foster children at their three-story house on the North Road.
“My mother liked kids,” Russell Hobson said. “And there weren’t too many black families on Long Island taking in foster kids at that time.”
Ethel Mosley of Riverside was one of those children. She was just a year old when she and her older brother, Tony, went to live with the Hobsons, who raised them into adulthood.
“We got to be in one house with one family,” she said. “They loved us and they were our parents.”
She said each of the children the family took in has stayed in touch and they all count each other as brothers and sisters. Russell Hobson said the same.
Ms. Mosley, 66, said she’s proud to have been raised by a man as respected as Jed Hobson. Bill Lynch, a Mattituck native who served as deputy mayor of New York City during the Dinkins administration, once told her, “Your father was my role model and mentor growing up.” Mr. Lynch, who died in 2013, would go on to serve as a consultant and adviser for Gov. Mario Cuomo, Sen. Hillary Clinton and South African president Nelson Mandela.
In 1966, the Long Island Advance of Patchogue wrote a profile on Mr. Hobson. At that time, fire departments in other communities had made headlines for still not allowing black members.
Mr. Hobson told the newspaper that when a chief first invited him to join the Southold Fire Department he had some concerns about whether he’d be accepted. But he’d answered so many calls and received such satisfaction from his service that he’d nearly forgotten those initial concerns, the article stated.
“Locally, it’s the top organization you can belong to,” Mr. Hobson told the Advance. “Belonging is a way a man could show his good communal spirit. It’s well worth anybody’s time to be a member.”
Russell Hobson, now 73, said his father was never one to brag, so the idea that he was a pioneer might have been lost on him.
“These were the same people he went to school with, who he belonged with. It was no big thing to him,” Mr. Hobson said. “They were all a group. All in it together.”
Ms. Mosley said her father’s funeral was probably the largest she’s ever attended. She recalled that the fire trucks were decorated with flowers and that as the procession passed by Southold High School, students waited on the steps, hands over their hearts.
It was a close-knit community, she recalled, and Jed Hobson was a major part of it.
“My father broke the color barrier,” she said. “If there ever even was one.”