When Wesley Williams reported to the firehouse for his first day of work in 1919, the captain resigned and every single other man on the force requested a transfer. The mostly Irish-American firemen insisted the African-American officer sleep in the basement (he didn’t), refused to talk to him, and smashed dishes that he had used. One day, racial tensions erupted into a fistfight, which Williams won.
Williams won more than fistfights. He eventually ascended to the rank of Battalion Chief and worked tirelessly to diversify the FDNY, eventually forming the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization for black firefighters, in 1940.
New York’s little-known but throbbing civil rights struggle came to life at New Haven’s Barnes & Noble Bookstore on Broadway Thursday evening as the author and key sources for the newly-released book Fire Fight spoke to a crowd of mostly black firefighters and their families.
Other than coverage of a high-profile civil rights lawsuit against the City of New York alleging discriminatory hiring practices, New York Daily News reporter Ginger Adams Otis’s book is the first to fully document the issue of institutionalized racism in the FDNY.
Last March, the Vulcan Society, led by fire Captain Paul Washington, won a $98 million settlement based on the argument that the city was intentionally excluding black and Latino firefighters. Their case was upheld by the often-cited statistic that the FDNY has never been more than 6 percent black—in a city that is 26 percent black. (Meanwhile, other uniformed agencies in the public sector such as police and corrections officers boast more diverse workforces, Otis said.)
The book illuminates the long history of shockingly bitter racial tensions within the FDNY, bouncing between the story of Manhattan’s first black firefighter Wesley Williams, who joined the force with record-breaking scores on the entrance exams in 1919, and Paul Washington, currently the most outspoken Vulcan demanding increased diversity and respect in a supposedly post-racial America, in a fire department where the N-word is still overheard.
The lawsuit and its greater associated struggle became Otis’ “living history” project as she wrote the majority of the book last summer, inspired largely by her reporting for the New York Daily News.
“I couldn’t have done it if it were all history,” she said at Thursday night’s event, looking at Washington. “I was able to bring it alive through the contemporary narrative.”
Wesley Williams’ grandson, Charles Williams, sat inconspicuously among a dozen broad-chested black firefighters clustered in an alcove of Barnes & Noble.
Williams’ 1999 adaptation of his grandfather’s life, The Chief, as well as his personal recollections and family archives, helped Otis fill in the complete picture of FDNY’s first Vulcan.
Despite the Vulcans’ recent victories, many younger firefighters are opting not to join it or equivalent organization such as New Haven’s Firebirds, fearing social alienation from white firefighters, said longtime Firebird Lt. Gary Tinney, who has been fighting many of the same issues as the Vulcans since he joined the department.
The book’s history of New York’s early black firefighters is relatively uncontroversial. Readers can exculpate their communities and their “bravest.” But the book’s contemporary narrative, running Washington’s current struggle parallel to Williams’, offers readers no such comfort. Otis’ story is compelling in its presentation of the persistence of institutionalized racism in the FDNY as the Vulcans continue to fight for an increased black presence on the force.
“We’re always fighting the same fight,” said Doug Wardlaw (at left in photo), second vice president of the New Haven Firebirds. “This book is the only one out there that’s brought national attention to this nationwide situation in fire departments.”
Over half a century after Williams’ fistfight with the hostile Irish-American fireman, Tinney (at right in photo) originally faced a similar alienation in his firehouse as one of few black men in the entire department.
“For years I’d walk into the firehouse and no one would talk to me,” he said. “It’s important to invite [the Vulcans], because it’s all relevant to what’s happening here and there’s very little coverage.”
The Firebirds, founded in 1971, have worked with the Vulcan Society for over a decade to advocate for increased diversity and localization of the fire department’s recruiting process. Former Vulcan Society president John Coombs (below), in attendance Thursday, testified several times to the Board of Alders as part of the Firebirds’ efforts to localize fire department training and recruit more people of color.
New Haven Fire Chief Allyn Wright stood up at the end of the event to voice his support for the black firefighters’ advocacy, reminding them “there’s no one up there on the third floor [of headquarters] that looks like me.”
The book frames the struggle as not only a matter of public service, but as a milestone for the civil rights movement, which Otis stressed was largely focused on economic justice and fair hiring practices. With an eight-day-a-month work schedule, generous benefits and a pension plan, firefighting positions are for many the best path to the middle class.
Since the nepotistic Tammany regime in New York, Otis writes, Irish-American men have held an overwhelming majority of, and sense of entitlement to, the coveted jobs. Black firefighters, from the very beginning, were seen as a threat to this inheritance, and thus have been historically intimidated, harassed, and excluded.
In the book, Washington recounts an instance in which the all-white firehouse conspired to spray him with a fire hose as a way of hazing him when he was new to the force.
Since the book’s publication, he said at the event, he has continued to face “pushback” and hostility from a lot of white firefighters. But compared to the suffering of “blacks that stood up for themselves in the past 50, 100, 200, 400 years,” this was quite tolerable.
He’s now captain of a house with a total of 12 black firefighters — a figure unheard of in FDNY history, according to Coombs.
Washington’s lawsuit resulted in a payout to applicants to FDNY who where rejected based on written tests that the lawsuit found to be discriminatory to black and Latino hopefuls.
Black and Latino applicants could not benefit from the 150-year-old culture of nepotism that had developed among white officers and veterans, and failed the department’s medical examination at nearly triple the rate of white applicants.
“We understand we’re not as smart because of the written test, and we understand we’re not as moral because of the background checks,” Washington joked. “But damn! Even our internal organs aren’t as good?”
Throughout the book talk, Washington (at right in photo, with Otis stressed that the lawsuit, which received considerable media attention was only a small part of the broader century-long struggle for civil rights in the public service.
“The lawsuit gets too much credit,” he said. “The Vulcan Society made the city make a change. We used a whole lot of media, went to countless hearings at city hall, and worked with local black politicians.”
And all the while they continued their essential task of directly recruiting young black men and women from their communities, convincing them that “they, too, can do this job,” said fellow Vulcan Jerry Smith.