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Janie Settles: First African-American Female Rescue Chief in North Carolina

Janie Settles was the the first African-American female rescue chief in North Carolina. She was born and grew up in Littleton in Halifax County, the youngest of the fourteen children of John Wesley Settles and Jannie Harlin Settles. At age 17, Janie married Herman Johnson, also of Littleton. They moved to Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, in 1949.

Johnson worked in the textile industry as a loom operator for most of the 1950s and early 1960s. As the civil rights movement took hold in the South, she became involved in improving employee rights and working conditions for blacks in the textile factories in Halifax County.


By the mid-1970s Johnson and her husband decided to relocate to Topsail Island in Onslow County. It was where she started a career in public safety. At the time Topsail Island had no organized fire or rescue department and Johnson felt one was needed because the population was growing continuously. She worked with town and county leaders during the late 1970s to build a case based on population, tourism, and growth to establish a dedicated 24 hour fire and rescue department.

In 1982, the Town of West Onslow Beach (now North Topsail Beach), in conjunction with Onslow County Emergency Management, established the department and in 1984 Johnson became rescue chief of the West Onslow Beach Fire and Rescue Department and consequently the first African American female rescue chief in North Carolina. During that same year, she received an Associate Degree in Medical Science from Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, North Carolina and served as a chief of paramedic services for the department.

In September 2010, Johnson was diagnosed with mesothelioma, possibly the result of exposure to asbestos fibers during her years working in the textile factories in Roanoke Rapids. Janie Johnson died on May 6, 2012 at the age of 80.


Written by PH

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