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Black Firefighters Struggle for Recognition Despite Heroism

by Meta J. Mereday

Black Firefighters: Still Forging a Path and Serving with Valor

 

 

Did you know that among the 3000 people lost in the collapse of the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, that there were 12 Black firefighters who lost their lives in the massive rescue effort? 

Many have expressed bitter disappointment that Black firefighters continue to remain invisible in the highlights of Sept. 11 and it further reinforces the ongoing issue of discrimination that has diminished the view of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and its many heroic acts both before, during and after Sept. 11.

At one point, I wanted to be a firefighter, and the fact that I was a girl and that there were no female firefighters at the time did little to dampen my desire to be a firefighter. 

Without the PBS Special “All Our Sons,” there would be little proof that there was any diversity in the bravery of firefighters, especially Black firefighters on that tragic day. Chronicling the lives of the Black firefighters through the stories highlighting two of the Black firefighters’ mothers, we get a glimpse of their struggles for acceptance and how many followed the traditional paths to this career. 

Ask young boys what they want to be and many in the New York borough still rank firefighter among their career choice. Despite not seeing many Black firefighters, it is still a career that entices young Black boys in cities including New York et al.   

To have this aspiration clearly is not a result of many local role models as New York, according to Workers World, has the “most unrepresentative fire department of any major city in the United States city with just 3.4 percent of the 11,000 firefighters being Black.” 

Black firefighters, in New York and other cities, have challenged the discriminatory practices ranging from unfair testing to lack of diverse outreach, to become a part of ladder companies across the country. 

Recently, a United States District judged ruled that New York City would have to revamp the hiring practices within its fire department that discriminated against Black applicants and the ruling opened the door for the payment of damages to applicants who had been victimized by the discrimination. 

There is always the hope that the winds of change will bring a much needed spirit of diversity into the FDNY and advocacy efforts by organizations such as the Vulcan Society has contributed to that change.

This outlook in no way minimizes the loss of all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice on that day.  Firefighters provide a valuable service to the community and many of their feats go unrecognized by the general public.  By recognizing the contributions and sacrifices of all firefighters, it provides another dimension to the spirit that America exhibits as the “land of the free and home of the brave.” 

We too never want to forget all those who have served us regardless of race or gender.  So, to the 12 Black firefighters lost in their service to our community and performance of their duties, we salute you!

Firefighter Gerald L. Baptiste - Ladder 9

Firefighter Vernon Cherry - Ladder 118

Firefighter Tarel Coleman - Squad 252

Firefighter Andre R. Fletcher - Rescue 5

Firefighter Keith Glascoe - Ladder 21

Firefighter Ronnie Henderson - Engine 279

Firefighter William L. Henry - Rescue 1

Firefighter Karl Joseph - Engine 207

Firefighter Keithroy Maynard - Engine 33

Firefighter Shawn Powell Engine 201

Captain Vernon Richard - Ladder 7

Firefighter Leon Smith - Ladder 118

Mereday is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men's Magazine. She was a Ground Zero volunteer immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and assisted many rescue units including firefighters, police officers, state troopers, utility workers and homebound residents as a Team Leader for Hands of Hope Ministries

This article was published on Thursday 04 March, 2010.
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