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The history of Black firefighters in New York

AmNews Staff Reports | 9/12/2017, 3:15 p.m.
Black firefighters in the FDNY have faced several challenges as the Department evolved over time.
Blacks in the FDNY Amsterdam News Archives

Black firefighters in the FDNY have faced several challenges as the Department evolved over time As we take a look at the history of African American firefighters in New York City, here are a few things you might not have known:

The first female firefighter in America was Black

Her name was Molly Williams and she was a slave. Prior to the creation of the current FDNY, firefighters worked on a volunteer basis. History says Williams was a volunteer firefighter of the fire unit “Volunteer No. 11.” During the Blizzard of 1818, she supposedly single-handedly pulled a huge engine long distance to a fire.

The first Black firefighter in the FDNY was a horse groom

William H. Nicholson became the first Black man on November 7, 1898 to join the FDNY. About a month later he was advanced to 4th grade fireman and made $800 a year. Nicholson was assigned to Engine Company 6 in Brooklyn. He faced discrimination, however. When he arrived for duty, orders had been received from fire headquarters that read, “When William H. Nicholson reports for duty, send him to headquarters. He is detailed to the Veterinary Department in Manhattan.” Nicholson worked for the department for 14 years as a horse groom. In 1914, John H. Woodson was appointed to Hook and Ladder 106. During his 22 years of service he was assigned to many firehouses.

Wesley Williams opens the door

In 1919, Wesley Williams took the firefighters physical exam at age 20 and was the only man out of 2,700 to score 100 percent. He was appointed to Engine Company 65 in Manhattan. On the day he started, everyone in his company asked for a transfer because they refused to work with a Black man. He was forced to sleep in the cellar of the firehouse and not with the other men. His ability soon earned him the respect of his fellow firefighters.

Williams becomes first Black battalion chief

In 1938, Williams was promoted to battalion chief. He was the highest ranking Black firefighter in the nation at the time. There were only four other Black firefighters in the FDNY when he was promoted. That soon changed. Williams served the FDNY for 33 years before retiring in 1952. He was also the founder of the Vulcan Society.

Firehouses were segregated

Black firefighters were assigned to Black or commercial areas and could not work in fireboat or rescue companies. Those who did work with whites had to sleep in what was known as the “Jim Crow” or "Black" bed at firehouses. If two or more Blacks worked in a firehouse with whites, their schedules were arranged to use the one bed. Many Black firefighters were relegated to cleaning duties at firehouses such as cleaning toilets. In one house, Blacks were not allowed to eat at the same table during mealtimes as their white co-workers.

The Vulcan Society

Because of issues of discrimination in the FDNY, Williams and over 50 other Black firefighters founded the Vulcan Society in 1940. The Vulcans maintained a close relationship with the Black community and other organizations. They also fundraised for the NAACP, the Urban League and the Harlem YMCA. The Vulcan Society made public the discriminatory practices in the FDNY bringing changes to the Department. By 1960, the Vulcan Society had 500 members.

Robert O. Lowery, the first Black Fire Commissioner

The Vulcan Society secured 20,000 signatures to petition Robert O. Lowery a deputy fire commissioner. Lowery was a 22-year veteran of the FDNY and served 11 terms as president of the Vulcan Society. He was sworn in as deputy fire commissioner in 1963 and three years later was appointed by Mayor John V. Lindsey as the first Black FDNY Commissioner. Lowery oversaw sweeping changes in the FDNY in terms of racial issues.