Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York's Bravest

Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York's Bravest

by Ginger Adams Otis


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781137280015
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 05/26/2015
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

GINGER ADAMS OTIS has been writing about New York City and local politics for more than a decade. She is a staff writer at the NY Daily News and previously worked at the NY Post. Otis started covering City Hall and the Fire Department when she worked for The Chief-Leader. She's been a radio and print freelancer for WNYC, the Associated Press, BBC, National Public Radio, The Village Voice and national magazines such as Jane and Ms. She lives in Harlem, NY.

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The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York's Bravest

By Ginger Adams Otis

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2015 Ginger Adams Otis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7933-1



818 East 223rd Street, Bronx, New York January 10, 1919

"When will you be able to come home again?"

His wife's question floated over Wesley Williams's broad back as he bent down to tie his thick black work boots. He yanked hard on the laces, pulling them through their holes with unusual vigor. He wanted them neat and flat against the soft tongue, the leather a snug clasp around his ankles. Straightening up, he shook out his pants. The rough navy cloth was baggy around his thick legs, making him look even stockier. His soft cotton shirt, a plain dark blue, hugged his barrel chest. He hoped the cheap material didn't rip when he got busy in the firehouse—and he anticipated a lot of strenuous work on his first day. At five feet nine and packed with 180 pounds of compact muscle on a bulky frame, he didn't exactly fit the standard-issue size. The fire department mandated that all new recruits show up in a work uniform made of specific material and in a precise style, but the men had to pay for it themselves. The only contribution the fire department made was to send a list of tailors who were authorized to do the work. Williams's tailor had thrown up his hands when he saw the young man's beefy proportions—a direct contrast to the meagerness of his purse. At least the pants were nice and loose, Williams observed. They fell in crisp lines from his waist, where a pair of new suspenders traveled in white vertical lines over his shoulders, then crisscrossed down his back.

He had not an ounce of fat on him for all his girth. He swam daily laps at the colored YMCA and greeted each morning with enthusiastic calisthenics. Williams turned to Peggy, who stood wrapped in a faded bathrobe next to the door. She'd already straightened their bed, hiding the threadbare sheets under a handmade coverlet. It gave the plain room a homey feel, along with the creaking of the old steam radiator that insulated their boxy Bronx apartment from the bitter January cold.

Once he stepped out his front door, Williams would be virtually unreachable at his firehouse downtown. Nobody knew what awaited him there, and he could see concern etched on his young wife's face. Peggy had stayed up half the night making sure the pleats in his pants were sharp as could be and his shirt didn't have one wayward wrinkle. He'd heard her clanking the stove in the kitchen of their two-bedroom railroad flat to heat the iron wedge she used to smooth out his uniform.

"Peggy, love, we talked about this," Williams said. "I won't be able to get back for at least 15 days. But I'll be all right. Let's go see the boys."

He took her hand as they moved through the predawn darkness of the apartment, down the narrow hallway that separated their bedroom from that of their two boys. James was almost three, and Charles was nearly two. If the history of his short marriage was any guide, it wouldn't be long before pretty Peggy, barely past 20, gave him another child. A spasm of worry gripped Williams as he stepped through the half-open door to stare down at his sons. They lay tumbled across the small bed they shared. He smoothed their warm foreheads, bending to press a kiss to each.

"I'll be back soon," he whispered.

Giving Peggy a final hug good-bye, Williams shrugged on his heavy wool coat and muffler. It was almost 6 a.m., and he had to step lively to make it to the nearby subway stop and get all the way downtown for 8 a.m. roll call in his firehouse. It was only a few blocks to the 225th Street station where he could catch the White Plains Road subway line that ran on an elevated track through the Bronx and into Manhattan, but Williams was leaving nothing to chance. He hurried down his building's narrow staircase to the front door, carrying a small satchel stuffed with clothes and the assignment papers that told him when and where to report for duty: Engine 55, 363 Broome Street, the heart of Little Italy. A probationary firefighter—especially one with so many eyes on him—could not afford to be late, ever.

Williams rounded the corner and heard the rattle of the approaching subway. Bounding up the steps, ticket already stashed in the pocket of his greatcoat, he claimed one of the wicker seats by the window. He'd timed the trip down to Broome Street in Little Italy twice in the past week, and knew he had nothing to do for the next 45 minutes while the train shimmied its way into Manhattan.

A million things raced through his mind, but uppermost was his concern for his family. One part of him hated that he was embarking on a dicey new career with two small kids and a wife dependent on him. If he got hurt or killed, his boys and Peggy, a nervous, anxious woman, would be left on their own. Just the thought of it made him squirm in his seat. But if he could survive, well ... all things were possible, even a new apartment in Harlem, right in the thick of the striving black class in New York. The job of firefighter held the allure of glory, but Williams was happy to settle for a steady paycheck that was better than anything he'd ever earned before. At 21, he was already a seasoned worker who had been supporting his wife since they married at 16. He and Peggy were native New Yorkers, and they'd come of age in a flourishing and expanding city. Shaking off the economic doldrums that had ended the Gilded Age in the 1890s, New York was roaring back. Williams grew up amid a time of unparalleled growth in urban projects and planning, all of which required labor—preferably cheap. New York's black population was exploding as well, buoyed by the Great Migration that carried poor laborers into northeastern cities like Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore. In the early days of the twentieth century, more blacks were looking for work in New York than at any time in the city's history, and their eyes fell on the opportunities created by government projects. From his earliest days as a young schoolboy in Harlem, Williams's teachers exalted the benefits of getting a good city job.

"You must never get arrested," his teacher had drilled into his head during his six years of grammar school, which was all the formal education he got. She'd chattered at him for many tedious hours after school, and her favorite topic was the importance of staying out of trouble with the law so he could get a civil service job. As a lefty, he was kept behind almost daily to force his cramping right hand to carefully copy the essays she set out for him. It was a vain attempt to change his natural left-handedness. But Williams heeded her instructions well, and while some of his friends wound up in more dangerous enterprises, as soon as he completed his basic education he signed up to work as a Sandhog digging subway tunnels. He might have stayed in the job, forever working in underground passages darker than night, returning home exhausted and grimy, except for two things: his father demanded he quit every time there was a dynamite-induced collapse, and they weren't infrequent; and a black man, Sam Battle, had somehow managed to join the New York City Police Department when Williams was 13 years old.

"Big Sam," a six-foot-three black man from North Carolina, was sworn into the NYPD on March 6, 1911, and it was a day Williams never forgot. The news spread far and wide through the black newspapers that a "race man" cracked the mostly Irish police ranks. Sam J. Battle, 28 years old, had turned into an overnight folk hero. It didn't matter to anyone in Williams's world that Battle was immediately assigned to patrol the blacks in San Juan Hill, known today as Lincoln Center. Back then it was still the heart of black Manhattan, although a shift northward into Harlem was slowly occurring. Williams read all about Battle's historic breakthrough in the black papers, and he heard his teachers sing Battle's praises, and he knew Battle, a close family friend. And at the San Juan Hill YMCA, Williams listened to all kinds of tales about Big Sam and his exploits on the job. Williams had always pegged himself for a city worker, like the black laborers who were the ditch diggers for subways, the blasters for tunnels, the men who built railways, and the porters who staffed them. But Battle had broken the mold and survived. There was nothing like the misery of digging ditches to make Williams look at the city's uniformed positions—higher-paid and, in the eyes of many, more prestigious—and wonder why he couldn't break through too.

It wasn't until after the FDNY selected him that Williams discovered he wasn't the first Negro to join the fire department—even though all the black newspapers declared him so. The news came in the form of a letter sent to his Bronx home. His name and address were clearly written out in block capitals, with the return address in the upper corner: John H. Woodson, PO Box 145, Jamaica, New York. Williams didn't know anybody named Woodson, but he dutifully opened it. He'd had all kinds of well-wishers writing him since his appointment. News had traveled fast, and he'd been reported on in black newspapers in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and even on the West Coast. Many of the friends and family and strangers who wrote to congratulate him included clippings of the newspaper and magazine articles that heralded his accomplishment.

Woodson's note, however, contained a surprise. It informed Williams that at least one other black man had come before him—and it was John H. Woodson himself. In fact, Woodson was still an active-duty firefighter in Queens. As he careened downtown on his train, Woodson's words jumped through his mind.

"You'll find quite a lot of jealous and narrow minded men," the unknown black smoke eater had written.

The life of a "race man" who had to sleep and eat alongside white firemen in the firehouse was not an easy one, Woodson said. He wrote that he decided to reach out after he heard of Williams's appointment in the Weekly Defender, the most widely read black newspaper in the country. Published in Chicago, the Weekly Defender excoriated the Jim Crow racism of the South and urged blacks to head northward. The paper offered tantalizing descriptions of a better life amid the factories and dance halls and theaters of the northern cities. It ignored the darker underbelly of exploited workers and strains of racism that existed there too—topics Woodson hinted at in his unsolicited words of advice.

"Do your work and do it as near perfect as you can, [and] do everything the commanding officers tell you to do, no matter what it might be, do it. Don't force your friendship on anybody and if there is an argument don't join them; just say 'I'm neutral.' If they speak of our race before you, in your presence, as niggers, pay no attention—go and do something or take a newspaper and read," Woodson wrote.

He concluded with optimistic "best wishes" for his fellow race man, but the letter had left Williams with a touch of anxiety. In 1919, the fire department was one of the most celebrated city agencies in New York. Its members were ordinary men who became larger than life when they were tearing through neighborhoods and hurling themselves inside raging infernos to haul out helpless citizens. They rode chugging engines, a few of which were still pulled by horses, with perpetual soot streaks across their beat-up faces and often with a dog at their feet. They commanded respect in most parts of the fire-prone city. Certainly, for the black population, they were a more welcome sight than their brothers in blue, the NYPD.

The police department had yet to be forgiven for its role in the 1900 Tenderloin Riots—not even the appointment of Sam Battle eased the bitter memories of most old-timers. For three days in August, in the middle of a sticky, miserable heat wave, the mostly Irish cops declared war on the black neighborhood. The disaster started when a plainclothes cop wrongly accused a black woman of soliciting on a popular corner of the seedy entertainment district—known today as Chelsea. When her boyfriend showed up, he saw a white man harassing his girlfriend. Not knowing the man was a cop, a fight broke out. The cop was knifed twice and died the next day, setting off a wave of brutality that stretched across the city. Whites attacked blacks, the black population armed themselves and fought back, and the cops stood back and did nothing, or used the fights as a pretext to engage in their own violent street assaults. Innocent black store owners and barkeeps were hauled into jail. When the smoke cleared three days later, scores of blacks had been beaten and arrested on trumped-up charges. Progressive groups clamored for a full investigation. When the results came six months later, the city found the NYPD guilty of no wrongdoing, and black resentment ran deep.

Yet to say race relations were better with the fire department was not to say they were good—or that the city was ready to welcome a black man into the ranks of its heroes. In 1903, not long after the Tenderloin Riots, New York was gripped by the Darktown Brigade sensation. For days the city talked of little else, and the incident—a mixture of humorous and horrific to New York whites—made the New York Times. It all started with a fire in a Paterson, New Jersey restaurant that was very in vogue with well-heeled diners. The small blaze that broke out inside W. F. Garnar's that hot September night was hardly noteworthy in itself. It was the group of black men who rushed in to extinguish it that caused the uproar.

"Black Firemen Cause Panic: Women Faint and Men Prepare for Defense," wrote the Times, describing pandemonium when "patrons ... saw a crowd of black men come rushing in with axes and pikes and other apparatus of firemen." Female diners, decked out in their finest attire, threw screaming fits and fell into terrified swoons as the men tore through the room in a frantic effort to tamp out the flames. The male diners, spurred to chivalry as their women dropped like flies, shouted and yelled, brandishing the delicate dining knives from their tables and thrusting their chairs to push back what they saw as a gang of marauding Negroes.

The chaos only abated when the black firefighters, grown hot and sweaty from their exertions, began to wipe their faces—revealing white skin. The screaming patrons finally realized they'd been rescued by a group of off-duty Irish firefighters who dubbed themselves the Darktown Brigade. Decked out in blackface, the white firefighters had been performing a minstrel show at a popular carnival when the flames broke out. Without pausing to consider the effect of their costumes, they sprang into action—and the ensuing panic eventually gave way to even greater hilarity. All of white New York laughed at the spontaneous trick played on W. F. Garnar's wealthy patrons, and probably even some of the city's blacks were amused by it. But it underscored a larger reality that wasn't lost on the young black men constantly prowling the city looking for work: the idea of a Negro firefighter was both laughable and terrifying. Fifteen years later, Williams could only hope things had changed.

He stood as his train neared Grand Central Terminal, a place as familiar to him as his Bronx apartment. He'd spent countless hours there since the Vanderbilt family had it built in 1913, watching his father work inside the cavernous structure whose ornate facade loomed over a teeming intersection of commuter and railway lines.

His father, James Williams, was already at work. His dad was the king of the Red Caps, the baggage handlers who supervised the transfer of luggage in and around bustling Grand Central Terminal and also at Penn Station. From underneath the serene, sky-blue domed ceiling, studded with twinkling constellations, his father was the fixed point for all the scampering porters. The hum of a thousand voices bounced off the high walls, pierced by the shouts of announcers as trains pulled in and pulled out.

To most hurried commuters, James Williams was just another bag handler, a personable, hardworking older black man who'd reached the top of a humble profession. But to the black community in Harlem, where he lived, the older Williams was a commanding, sought-after figure. He doled out summer jobs to the right sort of young men—the ones that hungered for a chance to work and thrive, and maybe even go to college. He'd even given a job to a young Sam Battle. His square-jawed face, dominated by wide brown eyes and a generous, easy smile, was often the last thing the city's elite saw when they chugged out of New York, and the first thing to greet them when they returned. It was understood that Williams would personally escort the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, the Goulds and the Morgans when they arrived at the station. His august figure was also a welcome sight to the likes of Mayor John F. Hylan, known as "Honest John," as well as four-time Democratic governor of New York Al Smith, and even the archbishop of the Catholic archdiocese. Theodore Roosevelt, a frequent train traveler, bellowed out a hearty "Jim!" anytime he arrived at Grand Central Terminal and embraced the dignified Red Cap. Social climbing families vied to be seen traversing the slick marble floors accompanied by Williams, who never lifted bags himself, but oversaw their transfer with old-fashioned gentility.


Excerpted from Firefight by Ginger Adams Otis. Copyright © 2015 Ginger Adams Otis. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prologue: All Fired Up

Into the Flames

UnCivil Service

We Shall Overcome

New Beginnings

The Slow Burn

Get Out of the Kitchen

The Can Man


Amid the Embers

Fighting the Fire Within

FDNY Aflame


Up in Smoke

Fire Escape

Trial by Fire

Epilogue: Out of the Ashes

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Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York's Bravest 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Trueblue More than 1 year ago
It's an embarrassment that NYC and its politicians resisted integration of the fire department for more than 100 years - but wow, it makes for a fascinating book. This is not "dry" history but a fast-paced story filled with lots of bad guys and a few, very important good guys. It shouldn't just be read by New Yorkers – it should be read by people in every city in America that has a fire department. It is especially timely in 2015 as the country examines its relationship with racism. One of the good guys is Wesley Williams, the first black NYC firefighter. He endured racism from his firehouse on up the FDNY ladder. It’s heartbreaking to read how he was taunted and even relegated to sleeping and eating separately from white firefighters. With “Firefight,” author Ginger Adams Otis has her own breakthrough, and joins the ranks of the best journalists turned non-fiction authors, a group today that includes Erik Larson, Jon Krakauer and Timothy Egan, all who write gripping history.
LRC42 More than 1 year ago
I am amazed by the incredible depth of research carried out to write this book and how the author was able to present it in such a readable, memorable way. From the anecdotal accounts of Wesley Williams' career in the FDNY, and the far reaching tendrils of Jim Crow and Tammany Hall corruption to court battles and savvy political maneuvers, I was riveted from the first page. As a school teacher, I was also fascinated by the arbitrary nature of the standardized tests being used for the FDNY hiring practices and the impact that it had on the lives of so many applicants. I commend the author for taking on the difficult task of writing about the sensitive subject of race relations in the diverse city of New York. This book is powerful, poignant and timely.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Proud to be first to write a review of an outstanding real life story still ongoing today . It reads like an unfolding movie; an absolute page turner. Lucid entertainment to fire up the senseses. You will be glad you have read this book!