Fighting the Fire Next Time

Some years ago, when I returned to my job at the fire department after a summer vacation driving and camping across country with my family, I was in the kitchen of Engine 6 talking about my trip. I was telling the firefighters how I thought they all would love to take a similar trip through wild and remote places in the West but I told Sylvester, the one black firefighter in the room, that I might be afraid to do it if I were an African-American. He agreed that he would be hesitant himself. Afterwards, I was reproached by a white firefighter, who felt that I was inflaming racial animosity by implying that a black man traveling across the country could be threatened just because of his race. This comment showed me how little aware he was of the climate of racial prejudice prevailing in the country. I came to see that kind of blindness as supporting a common theory among many white firefighters. It allows them to insist that any measures for affirmative action to correct discrimination in society are unjustified. Discrimination no longer exists, the theory goes; therefore, such measures give an unfair advantage to minorities and thus impinge on the equal rights of whites. This attitude is a far cry from the overt racism that existed in past generations, but it has proved to be an effective impediment to movements today that seek to address racial imbalance.

In Firefight, The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest (St Martin’s Press, 2015), Ginger Adams Otis has written a rich and detailed account of the long struggle of African-American firefighters in the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) to fully integrate the Department and end the discrimination in hiring and promoting that has persisted for generations. The story culminates with the Federal Court’s 2009 decision in favor of the US Department of Justice and the Vulcan Society, the organization of black firefighters.  The decision concluded that New York City’s reliance on written entrance exams that had little relationship to the job of firefighter, but had discriminatory effects that excluded hundreds of qualified people of color, constituted a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As Otis points out, the judge in the case, Nicholas Garaufis, never stated that the “content of the exams, the questions themselves, were too challenging for minorities or specifically biased against minorities,” only that they were meaningless in terms of determining how good a firefighter a person would make and resulted in a disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos being eliminated from the eligible pool.  This distinction is an important one, because the blowback from white firefighters and applicants was based on support of the exam system as an indicator of merit and on opposition to “dumbing down” the exam for the benefit of minorities. White firefighters formed a group called Merit Matters to fight against changes to the system and insisted that the issue was merit rather than race.

Urban fire departments are somewhat unusual organizations in an American society where institutions change rapidly and people change jobs and careers frequently. In contrast, fire departments are old and continuous bodies with close-knit communities living in tight quarters and depending on each other in life and death situations. There are a high proportion of the sons and grandsons of firefighters on the job, and they have inherited a tradition-loving culture that promotes old-fashioned values of honor and valor while at the same time being highly resistant to change. Innovations have always come slowly and with difficulty, from the changeover from horses to motor vehicles in the ’20s to the introduction of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) in the seventies. In my thirty-three year career on the Somerville, Massachusetts Fire Department I witnessed this resistance to change many times. When SCBA were first brought, in older firefighters often refused to wear them and disparaged those that did as “pussies”—not real smoke eaters—even though they gave firefighters much greater range and the ability to penetrate deeper into burning buildings. This made firefighters both more effective and exposed them to greater risk. I saw the same resistance to modernization taking place in the 21st century with the introduction of computers to replace paper record keeping. Although tradition can have the salutary effect of transmitting a culture of teamwork, preparedness, and bravery from one generation of firefighters to the next, it can be easily seen how an over-reliance on tradition can be dysfunctional.

In tracing the story of the FDNY’s race relations, Otis examines the traditions that serve to discriminate against minorities without necessarily doing so explicitly. She scrutinizes the system of family and friends that, over the years, has played a significant role in the hiring and promotion of “connected” firefighters but was never acknowledged by them as constituting a special privilege. In recent years, white firefighters have rejected the very idea that they have received special favors or that racism existed at all. They have denied that racial discrimination played any part in the FDNY hiring system and this enabled them to frame their opposition to the demands for a more racially balanced fire department as a demand for equal treatment for themselves—for an end to “reverse discrimination”—thus using the language of the civil rights movement to try to capture the high moral ground in the dispute. However, it was obvious to any neutral observer that a department that was 93 percent white in as diverse a city as New York was not using fair and unbiased methods for hiring. The Federal Court agreed, as noted, and as a result of that case the court appointed monitors to oversee FDNY hiring practices. As a result, in 2012 a test was given that did not systematically weed out minority candidates for the FD and 2013 saw the most racially diverse group in the history of the FDNY.

It was a long and tortuous journey for those dedicated to ending discrimination in the FDNY and certainly a history worth telling both for what it says about this particular issue and institution and the light it shines on race relations in America more generally.  Otis’s book tells the story of many heroic black firefighters who stood up against unfair treatment and fought for an end to discrimination, but it focuses on two pivotal members of the Department: Wesley Williams and Paul Washington. In relating their histories, Otis is able to narrate an account that spans almost 100 years and conveys not only the brutal obstinacy of white supremacy but the dedication and persistence of its foes as well.

Wesley Williams was the grandson of an escaped slave and the son of the chief of the Red Cap porters at Grand Central Station. Despite a high score on the written test he took in 1918, and a perfect score on the physical, Williams almost did not get the job.  He was aided by his father’s connections as the Red Cap chief, which made him a well-known character to the rich and famous who travelled in and out of Grand Central Station. With a letter from former President Teddy Roosevelt and a reference from a Tammany Hall friend of his father’s, he was finally appointed a year later. One of the first black firefighters on the FDNY, Williams reported for duty at the Engine 55 firehouse at 363 Broome Street, in lower Manhattan in January of 1919. Although 1919, a year of revolution, would be known as the Red Summer, it was also a high point of Jim Crow in the South—and in many northern cities as well. Every single firefighter in Engine 55 put in for a transfer when Williams was hired and they heard they would be working with a black man. The transfers were denied, the FDNY knowing that they would never be able to fill the ranks if they allowed transfers out. The captain of the house retired the day Williams arrived rather than have to work with him. The firefighters refused to talk to him, threw away any dishes he touched and did all they could to make him quit. He refused to sleep in the basement as they requested and so was assigned the worst bunk, next to the latrine. He put up with the abuse, however, and kept to himself, retreating to the roof for solace, making friends with the Italian immigrants in the neighborhood, and learning to do his job proficiently. He persevered and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1927, the first black man to hold the rank, and eventually worked his way up through the ranks to retire as a Deputy Chief in 1952. 

In 1938, after being promoted to Battalion Chief and finding himself the protector and mentor to the eighty or so black firefighters on the department, he helped to found a black fraternal organization and so the Vulcan Society was born. The Vulcans fought against the Jim Crow rules that assigned black firefighters to “black” beds that wouldn’t have to be used by whites, assigned black doctors to treat them separately, and tried to set up all-black firehouses to segregate them, as was the case in some other cities. Williams’s story is an amazing one, which takes the reader from the days of Boss Tweed to those of Adam Clayton Powell. Powell, radical unionist Mike Quill, and black Communist activist Benjamin Davis provided City Council support for the Vulcans and eventually, in 1944, they put enough pressure on Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to get the black beds outlawed and end most of the overt forms of discrimination against black firefighters.

The later years of the struggle are told largely through the story of Paul Washington, who became the president of the Vulcan Society in the 1990s.  He grew up in Staten Island, the son and nephew of black firefighters. He joined the FDNY in 1988 and soon became interested in increasing the numbers of blacks in the department. He met firefighter Mike Marshall, who had been on the job for ten years, and together they worked through the Vulcans to get more blacks to take the test and to improve their chances of getting appointed. The story of Marshall and Washington and the other leaders of the Vulcan Society in the 1990s and 2000s makes up the bulk of Otis’s book. It delves into the details of the selection system, from the writing of the tests by the often inept Department of Citywide Administration Services (DCAS) to the shadowy Personnel Review Board (PRB) that made the final decisions about background checks and decided which questionable applicants would be given a chance and which wouldn’t. Marshall and Washington knew that it was not just one thing that kept the numbers of black firefighters down; many things in the convoluted system would have to be corrected if the FDNY was ever going to be representative of the city’s population. The story of their recruiting efforts and the decision to bring a suit against the Bloomberg administration and the FDNY is an interesting and revealing one, but one is left wondering why the city resisted in making the necessary changes for so long, and why such an obvious imbalance was allowed to persist. 

“FDNY Engine 1, Ladder 24” by Andy Cross ( used under (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Otis addresses this question: she paints Bloomberg as a stubborn egoist who, once he had come up with an idea he thought was a good one, would not entertain any others. In this case, when his offer to Paul Washington to head the Department’s recruiting effort was rejected, he would no longer negotiate in good faith with the Vulcans and allowed the case to go to court rather than settle. But perhaps there is more to it than Bloomberg’s personality. Maybe he felt that the Merit Matters group of white firefighters was right in insisting that the tests were a true measure of merit or maybe he just felt that the backlash from the white firefighters would be too much of a political liability. 

I know from personal experience that affirmative action is a volatile issue in fire departments. Many white firefighters feel that whites are discriminated against when black or minority candidates are aided in any way (either by special recruitment measures or by changes to the test to make it less discriminatory).  This originates partly in the fact that the job itself is highly sought after. It provides a career that is rewarding in many ways, from the nature of the work itself—helping people in need—to the pay and benefits that include a good pension and medical plan. Another great benefit is the work schedule, which allows a lot of free time to pursue other interests, to play a greater role in family life or to take on a second job. It has strong appeal to those who prefer a life of action to office work and provides good career opportunities for those without a lot of college credentials or academic inclinations. It is a good job for a working-class person and one that grants a fair amount of social standing in the community. Otis refers to this often in the course of her book, telling how the Vulcans talk to prospective black candidates about the many benefits of a firefighting career. Selling points like this are often needed to encourage minority candidates to apply for the job and take on the challenges of being a minority black on a majority white Department.

Because of its unique place in the field of possible careers for young, working-class people of all races, competition for the limited number of firefighter positions can be fierce. However, when the competition is between whites and blacks, it takes on another dimension, and the ideology of white supremacy rears its ugly head. The competition for limited jobs has played a large role in the antagonistic race relations of the American urban North ever since blacks began moving there from the South, first to escape slavery and later to escape the oppression of post-Reconstruction segregation. White supremacy made the trip North along with the ex-slaves, finding a receptive home in the hearts of the downtrodden white northern workers. Here white supremacy functioned as it always had, as a social control mechanism in which one segment of the working population is granted small special privileges that another group is denied in order to keep the working classes divided and to keep the favored group loyal to the wealthy class and the status quo. 

This strategy, first employed in 17th century Virginia in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion to keep white indentured servants from uniting with black chattel slaves against the planters, functioned as an essential part of the social fabric of the slavocracy up until the end of the Civil War. Its efficacy was demonstrated by the loyalty of the white yeomen of the South to the Confederacy, when so many died defending a slave system that was of no seeming benefit to them. White supremacy was reconstituted in the post-Reconstruction South as Jim Crow laws and segregation constructed a social boundary between the races that left the former slaves with no allies willing to help them to avoid re-slavery under another name. The poorer whites took up their former role as slave catchers for their masters, this time as Ku Klux Klan night riders upholding Jim Crow or as county sheriffs making a profit from renting out imprisoned blacks as miners, loggers, or even factory workers. 

The acceptance of the ideology of white supremacy throughout American society was aided by the pseudo-science of race. This science derived its authority from many respected academics of the age and was readily adopted in the North as well as the South. Migrating blacks found racism and segregation waiting for them in the urban centers to which they fled, as once again white supremacy was taken up by a population of white workers willing to sacrifice their own class interest for a slightly superior social standing and petty privileges. Thus the one hundred years following the Civil War were a period in which segregation and racial oppression were rampant. Out-and-out racism and racial stereotypes were an accepted part of American social life. This was also the era of the rise of the labor movement and progressive politics but neither was radical or strong enough to overthrow the white supremacist ideology, and so these movements remained hampered and divided by racism. Overt racism and discrimination were outlawed in the 1960s with the successes of the civil rights movement, but less explicit forms remained a tradition in many places.

This is the background against which Ginger Adams Otis’s story takes place. It is against this tradition of covert racism—ingrained, instinctive, and often-subconscious white supremacy—that Vulcans like Paul Washington, Mike Marshall, and the others conducted their campaign for equality in the 21st century. In part because of the importance paid to tradition in the fire service, racial balance there has lagged behind police departments and other civil service sectors. The FDNY has been the worst of major US Fire Departments in terms of a membership reflecting the diversity of the city’s population, the slowest to bring about changes that make for a more racially and gender balanced department, but the success of the Vulcans’ cases against the Bloomberg administration and the willingness of the Fire Department and the de Blasio administration to implement the court orders promise a future FDNY that is indeed reflective of the city’s makeup.

Along with a more racially balanced workforce comes the possibility of an end to the prejudice and white supremacist attitudes that continue among some firefighters. In some cases this means older firefighters retiring and replaced by younger ones with less hardened attitudes. But also, one of the great values of diversity is that when different populations live and work together, when people get to know each other rather than see each other through stereotypes, false notions about race can disappear. The 19th century science that divided humanity into races was refuted by 20th century science that proved the genetic propinquity of the human population. Notions of racial difference that have no basis in reality can now be recognized as the social constructions they are, constructions that survive in the culture because of the role they continue to play as social control mechanisms. Eliminating these concepts is a necessary step to recognizing our common humanity. It is also a necessary step if firefighters and other workers are to acknowledge their common class interest and end the racial divide that has hampered workers’ movements throughout American history.


Peter St. Clair

PETER ST. CLAIR was born and raised in Brooklyn and served thirty-three years on the Somerville, Massachusetts Fire Department before retiring as a Deputy Chief in 2010.