Black firefighters’ legacy of struggle

A shocking incident in 1987 exposed to the San Francisco public what Black firefighters in the city had always known. Racism in the virtually all-white fire department was vicious and pervasive.

The incident emboldened the Black firefighters of San Francisco to continue their fight for affirmative action. That struggle led to a historic 1988 court order, which resulted in a major increase in hiring and advancement of Black firefighters, other people of color and women.

It was a battle replicated in nearly every major city of the United States. Black firefighters’ experiences of unmitigated racism and white-only hiring policies endured far longer than in virtually any other industry or institution in the country.

San Francisco’s racist scandal

In San Francisco, the August 1987 fire department scandal blew open when the primarily white International Firefighters Association Local 798’s publication “Main Line” published a photograph titled “Heroes.” The photo featured 23 firefighters who had carried out lifesaving deeds and received honors from the city.

But something was seriously wrong with the photograph.

The only Black firefighter in the picture, Charles Johnson, had been airbrushed out. The evidence? His legs and shoes had been inadvertently left in.

This deliberate omission from the picture prompted outrage among Black firefighters and the public. Members of the Black Firefighters Association held a press conference the next day to denounce the incident.

Although forced to issue an apology, firefighter Mike Pera, the Main Line’s editor, gave a shameful excuse for the omission. He claimed Johnson was removed because he was not a union member.

Johnson had received a hero’s citation for entering a burning building in a massive fire that broke out in the mainly African American Bayview district. He saved nine people while off-duty. Eight other people died in the fire.

Why didn’t Johnson belong to IFA Local 798? It is, after all, the organization representing all firefighters on the job.

It was not because Johnson was anti-union, against workers’ organizations or opposed to collective representation and betterment of all the workers.

In fact Johnson, like almost all other African American firefighters in the city, was a member of the Black Firefighters Association. He and the 78 other Black firefighters in San Francisco had broken away from Local 798. There were a total of 1,380 firefighters in San Francisco in 1987.

The San Francisco BFA was originally formed as a caucus in 1972 within the union. But after years of enduring the racism and active opposition within the union to integrating the fire department, the Black members in the BFA split to form a separate organization in 1985.

The BFA is affiliated to the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters. The IABPFF was formed in 1970 as an initiative of the Vulcan Society of New York City, the Phoenix Society of Hartford, Connecticut, the Vulcan Pioneers of New Jersey and Hudson County and the Valiants of Philadelphia.

A climate of racism

These organizations were born out of the virulent racist hostility that Black firefighters faced in every fire department without exception. From New York City to Boston to Los Angeles, from Atlanta to San Francisco to Chicago, fire departments were historically all-white and all-male institutions. There was a patronage system of hiring and advancement handed down through the generations to sons, nephews and friends of other white firefighters.

Wherever African American firefighters managed to break through the rigid color line, they faced brutal and dangerous attacks. The racism was exacerbated by a practice of segregation against the Black firefighters in many firehouses.

In the firehouses, workers live together for extended shifts due to the nature of the job. They cook and eat together, sleep at the firehouse while on duty, and are highly dependent on each other when fighting fires or conducting rescues. Facing racist and sexist firefighters in such close quarters could mean danger for a Black person, a woman or any person of color.

The case of Wesley Williams, the third Black firefighter ever hired in New York City, illustrated that treatment. Hired into the fire department in 1919, his story is told on the Vulcan Society’s website:

“The day young Wesley entered the company, the captain took a roll call, thanked the men for their support and left. He retired from the Fire Department the same day because he did not want the stigma of a Black man in his company. All of the men requested transfers so they would not be forced to work with a Negro or colored man. Fire Department officials imposed a one-year moratorium on transfers in hope that the men would adjust to Wesley.

“He endured discrimination at its worst. Among the many instances, they would not speak to him and tried to get him to sleep in a bed in the cellar. They said they would speak to him if he slept in the cellar. He refused. When he went upstairs to the bunks, they went downstairs. He proved himself by showing how tough he was at fires and whipping butt in the cellar when they challenged him.

“Williams was promoted to Lieutenant in 1927, Captain in 1934 and Battalion Chief in 1938. By 1940 there were 40 Black men in the Fire Department, all facing similar problems. Chief Williams suggested the men organize. The Vulcan Society was born.”

It took tremendous courage and perseverance by early Black firefighters like Williams who refused to quit under such humiliating conditions, but instead stayed on to fight for change.

The fight for affirmative action in San Francisco

San Francisco’s fire department was founded in 1860. It was 95 years before the first African American was hired. His name was Earl Gage and he came into the department in 1955. Gage had to carry his own cooking utensils and bedding from station to station, as no other firefighter would sleep in his bunk or share cooking utensils at mealtime.

But Gage refused to quit.

Community support played a big part in Gage’s persistence and struggle. In 1970, the Western Addition Community Organization (WACO) and the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit against the San Francisco Fire Department because of bias in the entry-level test that kept minorities out of the fire department. Not only was the test biased, but questions were often given out ahead of time to white applicants.

There were only four Black firefighters in 1970 when the San Francisco suit was filed.
Soon after the suit was filed, one-for-one hiring was ordered by a federal judge. One African American person was ordered hired from a qualifying list for every white person who was hired from the same list.

The one-for-one hiring was not a system to favor unqualified Black workers over qualified white workers, as the racist argument often goes. All who were hired—Black and white—had passed qualifying tests.

The court order, known as a consent decree, was a quota system instituted to combat the historically entrenched practice of favoritism towards whites who were ushered in with answers to test questions, or given jobs by virtue of nepotism.

The consent decree was a particular form of redress that became common in struggles for fair hiring, promotion and retention in the 1960s and 1970s on the job. Other industries affected were the building trades and steel. Affirmative action victories in court were simply a reflection of the strong anti-racist fights led by African Americans in the United States.

Breaking up the “good old boys’ club,” whether in San Francisco, New York or elsewhere, unleashed more racist attacks by department administrators as well as union locals dominated by racist white firefighters determined to terrorize Black firefighters into leaving the force.

In 1987, this writer interviewed Bob Demmons, president of the San Francisco Black Firefighters Association, at the time of the photograph incident. He spoke of the Ku Klux Klan-type mentality in the city’s firehouses.

Demmons described the conditions at Station 3 on Polk Street. Black workers referred to it as “Johannesburg West.” Demmons said, “They used to have a Confederate flag hanging up there and were finally forced to take it down in 1981. There was also a poster on the wall at that station of a Black South African youth with half of his head blown off. And the president and the grievance chairman of the union were members of that station!”

Continued racism today

Lest anyone think that racism and harassment in the firehouse are a thing of the past, one need only look at the Los Angeles Fire Department. In early November 2006, the City of Los Angeles signed a settlement awarding $2.7 million to Black firefighter Tennie Pierce.

Pierce had been served dog food in his spaghetti at the Westchester firehouse. The station captain, John Tohill, who is white, purchased the dog food, and a Latino firefighter, Jorge Arévalo, mixed the dog food in the spaghetti that was served to Pierce.

It is only one of several lawsuits filed and settled in recent years against the LAFD for racist and sexist harassment within the fire department.

While some progress has been made in hiring and promotions in rank in some districts, some fire departments have stalled.

Most egregious is New York City. Although it may be the most multinational city in the United States, today only 3 percent of the city’s 11,000 firefighters are African American. Slightly over 4 percent are Latino, and less than 1 percent are Asian.

According to Capt. Paul Washington, outgoing president of the Vulcan Society of New York City, the situation has not improved for Black firefighters or in hiring from the community. If anything, it has worsened over the years. Washington joined the New York City firefighters in 1988. He became lieutenant in 1995 and captain in 2001. He was voted Vulcan president in 2002.

Although the Vulcan Society won a lawsuit in 1973 over the entry-level written test which was determined to be biased, the settlement was limited to hiring one Black firefighter within every four hires from within an existing qualifying list of applicants. When it was completed, there was no other affirmative action program to follow.

“There are three entities involved in the city who have the power to change the situation in the fire department right now,” Washington told Socialism and Liberation. “The mayor, whoever it happens to be at the time; the fire commissioner and the commissioner of the Department of City-wide Administrative Services, which administers the entry-level test. The ball is in their hands.

“With the stroke of a pen, they could make whatever changes are necessary. But they won’t do it voluntarily. It will have to take community, political and media pressure to make them change.”

In an appalling insult to the Black community, in 2001, the New York Fire Department hired two of the four cops fired after the killing of 23-year old African immigrant Amadou Diallo. Washington and other Black community leaders organized a press conference to protest the hiring, but the two killer cops remain NYFD firefighters to this day.

In 2002, the Vulcan Society filed a series of discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the city and fire department administrators refused to sit down and work out a settlement. The EEOC found the charges substantiated and moved the complaint to the U.S. Justice Department, where it is currently under investigation.

After the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, a very disturbing incident, reminiscent of the San Francisco photograph scandal, broke out. Capt. Washington explained, “In the aftermath of 9/11, there was a famous picture of three firefighters putting up a flag at Ground Zero; the three of them were white. The artist who depicted that scene in a statue that was set to go up at Fire department headquarters made it with one Black firefighter, one white and one Hispanic.

“That statue never went up because white firefighters objected to firefighters of color being portrayed.

“The man who objected the most, Steven Cassidy, was running for union president. He championed the cause to remove the statue. Hardly anyone in the union knew him before that, but because he yelled and screamed about that issue for the white firefighters, it ended up getting him elected for union president. It gives you an idea of what it is like in the fire department.”

Struggle brings progress

To the extent that any U.S. fire department has been integrated, it is due to the persistent struggle waged by Black firefighters. Generally, where there has been a higher rate of integration, the situation for Black and other firefighters of color and women has been better.

San Francisco is a prime example. The BFA persisted in documenting every instance of racist harassment. They held pickets at offending stations and community forums. New lawsuits were filed.

Community support snowballed. The Equal Rights Advocates, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Lawyers Committee for Urban Affairs and the Asian Law Caucus joined in the legal battle. Meanwhile, the notorious Local 798 went to the California Supreme Court to argue against relief for national minority and women hiring. Bob Demmons led the battle as 12-year president of the BFA during that crucial period.

Finally, in 1987, federal judge Marilyn Hall Patel ordered a sweeping consent decree that would affect recruitment, hiring and promotion of qualified people of color and women. It was ruled that within seven years, the department must have 40 percent people of color and 10 percent women, with half of the women to be Black and other minorities.

Today, San Francisco’s fire department is 40 percent people of color, and 12 percent women, along with lesbian and gay firefighters.

New York Vulcan Society’s Washington may be discouraged at times, but he is not one to give up.

“I think we can make some big improvements. Hopefully with the Justice Department investigation, with our continued political activity and media pressure, I think we can make some changes. There is no sign at all that the hierarchy in the fire department or the government really wants to make a change. But they can be made to make a change.

“We do have support in the Black community across the board, political as well as church and civic groups. There is no question that community support is widespread.”

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