Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate the New York City Fire Department

Wesley Williams (right) and unidentified firemen in front of Engine 55, ca. 1920
Courtesy The Schomburg Center, Public domain

In the following article Ginger Adams Otis, a staff writer at the New York Daily News and a longtime city reporter, describes her more-than-decade-long research following the evolution of a landmark civil rights case brought by the Vulcan Society, a determined group of activist black New York City firefighters. In 2005 the Vulcan Society sued the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) and the then-Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, for racial discrimination. The lawsuit was settled in the Vulcans’ favor in 2010. It took until 2013, however, for hiring to begin again. At the same time, the city and FDNY challenged the part of the ruling that found them guilty of intentional discrimination. The parties were getting ready to take that particular claim to trial again when Mayor Bill De Blasio came to power in 2014. Within three months, the city reached an accord with the Vulcans to settle the intentional discrimination lawsuit. While following the case, Adams discovered the incredible stories of the first African Americans who joined the fire department, beginning with William Nicholson who joined the department in 1889. Otis wrote Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest to describe the history of black firemen in the New York City Fire Department.  

In 2004 my first regular reporting gig for a newspaper in New York City, New York was for a century-old broadsheet known as The Chief-Leader. Owned by the same family since the early 1900s, The Chief, as it was called, dedicated itself to covering the city’s municipal workforce. My job was to report on all things related to the Fire Department of New York (FDNY).

On my first day, my boss tossed a press release on my desk and told me to get moving. A group of black firefighters known as the Vulcan Society, which I had never heard of before, was going to be holding a press conference on the steps of City Hall. Intrigued, I picked up a notepad, grabbed a pen, and took off.

I was one of just a few reporters who showed up that day. Undoubtedly, those working for the tabloids and major mainstream papers were chasing bigger stories. But to me, the story was right in the Chief-Leader wheelhouse. The Vulcans were challenging the city’s reliance on written exams through the civil service hiring system to choose who got to join the FDNY. The tests had a disparate impact on the black and Latino applicants who took them, because as a general rule they scored in the upper 80s and low 90s. There were exceptions, of course, but the bulk of the candidates of color were always found in that middle band. It was well above the failing rank of 70, but far, far out of hiring contention. In order to have a shot to become a New York City firefighter, a candidate had score in the very high 90s. And even that was no guarantee.

The Vulcans were determined to battle the system, in the courts if need be. The thrust of their legal challenge was simple: the city had never taken any steps to verify that the exams were actually measuring any skills related to being a good firefighter. In fact, as it would later come out in court, the city had never done any such study, a process known as validation. So many qualified candidates, including candidates of color, were washed out because they didn’t score in the very uppermost percentile of an essentially meaningless test.

I was immediately fascinated by the Vulcans’ claims as well as the counter-arguments that flowed back from opponents. Civil service, its supporters argued, was a color-blind and prejudice-free hiring system, and anyone who said otherwise was probably looking for the dreaded “special treatment” at which so many firefighters sneered.

It struck me as charmingly anachronistic that the FDNY still awarded its sought-after (and very lucrative) firefighting positions through a hiring system devised in the days of Tammany Hall. Yet it was clear through the sweep of the last century that civil service, both in New York and nationally, had done a great deal toward bootstrapping generations of workers into the middle class, especially many African Americans.

But even that argument boomeranged when applied to the FDNY. In 2004 in a city that was 25 percent African American, the fire department was only 3 percent black, it had about 300 hundred black firefighters in a force of 11,000.  Yet, no other uniformed city agency had the same striking lack of diversity. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) for example, had 5,100 black officers in a total force of 35,000 (16 percent). In some city agencies like the Department of Corrections and the Sanitation Department, people of color comprised a majority of the workforce, much like the city itself. What made the FDNY such an outlier? I was determined to find out.

The quest for an answer took me all the way back to the city’s origins, to the days when Nieuw Amsterdam’s fire-fighting service consisted of leather buckets and the instantaneous collective reactions of every man, woman and child, enslaved or free. The gradual formation of an official fire service, complete with firehouses and imported pumper trucks, took more than a century, but by the time the infamous New York City Draft Riots occurred in 1863, the city was studded with firehouses in every ward.

The role New York City volunteer firefighters played in sparking the incendiary racial violence that ran through Manhattan for many days is now well known, especially after it formed one of the opening scenes in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York. A lesser-known fact that I did stumble upon, however, was the identity of the owner of one of the most virulently anti-black and pro-slavery newspapers in town, James Gordon Bennett. Through his newspapers, Bennett helped to stir up the rage and resentment that exploded in the Draft Riots in 1863. He’s also the same man who endowed a medal to the Fire Department in 1869 after its smoke eaters put out a blistering blaze in his opulent townhouse. The James Gordon Bennett medal remains the highest honor the FDNY can bestow upon a member today, even though its namesake played a major role in fomenting the largest urban racial riot in United States history. Only two black FDNY firefighters have ever gotten the James Gordon Bennett medal, and I’m told that after one of them read by book, Firefight, he contemplated giving it back to the department. I hope he does not because he earned that medal through his own bravery.

The discovery whet my appetite to learn more about what I came to think of as the “hidden history” of the FDNY, an agency steeped in its own traditions and myths, but as I would find, with many forgotten surprises. I knew that the Vulcan Society thought of Wesley Williams, who joined the FDNY in 1919, as the first black firefighter but something told me there were more to be found.

I visited the archives at the Schomburg Center in Harlem to search through its collection of early black newspapers like the Chicago Defender and the Amsterdam News. At first, I found nothing because I made the rookie (and non-historian) mistake of searching for “black” and “firefighter.” Those terms didn’t exist one hundred years ago: Blacks were Negroes, and the idea of a gender-neutral firefighter was laughable. New York City firefighters were all “firemen,” and unabashedly so.

Once I got the terms straight, a few clues emerged. The first came in the form of a letter to the editor in the Amsterdam News. Written in 1926, it was a response to an article published the week before that declared that New York City’s Fire Department’s “first Negro” was preparing to take the lieutenant’s exam. The article named Wesley Williams as the ambitious fellow, but the letter to the editor had a correction: The first Negro fireman was William Nicholson, of Myrtle Ave. in Brooklyn, and he had been hired in 1898, twenty-one years before Wesley Williams.
?Armed with this scrap of information, I tore into the city census records, and there he was: William Nicholson, living on Myrtle Ave. in 1900, with the proud title of “fireman” as his occupation. In a predominantly black neighborhood where the jobs of his neighbors were “porter” and “baggage handler” and sometimes even “clerk,” his profession stood out.

That sent me to the city’s municipal archives where I rooted through old FDNY employment records. I also trolled the memories of the very oldest black firefighters still alive. Slowly, and in a frustratingly piecemeal fashion, a picture emerged: Nicholson had been brought on to the FDNY in 1889, as Brooklyn officially joined with Manhattan. He’d scored well on his entrance exam, and it was said he was selected to serve as an aide to the Brooklyn Commissioner, John D. Ennis. However, with the merger of Manhattan and Brooklyn, Ennis’s long tenure as leader ended, leaving Nicholson to find his own place amid a hostile rank-and-file. The incoming fire commissioner, John Jay Scannell, who was also a powerful force in Tammany Hall, to his credit did not oust Nicholson, but neither did he find a way to shield him from the rancor of the rank-and-file which did not welcome having a black man living alongside them in the firehouse.

The first day Nicholson reported for duty at his Brooklyn firehouse, he was ordered to the veterinary unit in Manhattan where he could care for the horses. It was a ritual Nicholson repeated until he retired, the victim of a gradually worsening heart condition, in 1912. He left the service as quietly as he entered, without being allowed to suit up and join his fellow firefighters in the firehouse.

But the surprises didn’t stop with Nicholson. The Schomburg’s archives also brought me to another black firefighter who pre-dated Wesley Williams. His name was John H. Woodson, and he also got into the FDNY through some backroom dealings. Woodson was appointed in 1914 in Brooklyn as a thank you to black political power broker Charles Anderson, who had helped sway a local election in favor of Tammany Hall. In exchange, Anderson got one city job in the FDNY for a black man, provided nobody publicized the deal. Tammany Hall couldn’t risk alienating white voters by letting it be known that they had allowed a Negro into the well-paid ranks of the fire department.

Of the three black men who were the earliest to break the FDNY color line, Woodson’s background is the most opaque. Although Nicholson was warehoused in the veterinary unit, his service was memorialized in his firehouse daily log. And Wesley Williams, joining in 1919, was an overnight sensation in the burgeoning black press, thanks in part to the World War I era Great Migration that bought tens of thousands of African Americans to New York City (and other northern communities) and initiated the Harlem Renaissance.

Woodson’s passage into the FDNY was more secretive, and, I can only surmise, much lonelier. Nicholson was two years retired when Woodson came into the FDNY in 1914. That meant Woodson was the lone black among the five thousand two hundred New York City firefighters at the time.

No record of his physical size remains, but he was described once by then-Fire Commissioner Robert Adamson as a “regular Jack Johnson,” a reference to the first heavyweight black champion, John “Jack” Johnson. Adamson, a native of Clayton County, Georgia, proudly championed Woodson, making sure he wasn’t kicked off the civil service hiring list by an over-zealous doctor who would declare him medically unfit, a common tactic back then among Tammany leaders who wanted to make sure their voters got the bulk of the jobs.

Woodson however proved himself a valiant smoke eater even though he had a difficult time gaining acceptance inside his Greenpoint Avenue firehouse. Records show that in 1917 he was lauded for an amazing rescue that saved the lives of a shrieking mother trapped by voracious flames on an upper-story window. The Brooklyn blaze threatened to overwhelm not just her but the squalling infant she clutched to her chest. Woodson darted up one of the FDNY’s towering ladders to grab the woman and her bundle, but terror left her frozen at the window’s ledge.

Straining every muscle, Woodson manhandled the woman over his shoulder, holding her kicking legs firm even as she yanked and pulled with her free hand on his large overcoat. Fighting for balance, he gingerly got her down to the ground, and then ran back up the ladder to see if there were more survivors who needed his help.

Woodson got a medal for his outstanding work, but little mention of it was made in the mainstream press. If not for a write-up in the Washington Bee, a newspaper primarily for African-Americans, the medal would likely have never been awarded.

A reporter from the Bee sought Woodson out at Hook & Ladder 106 to talk about his life as a New York City fireman, and the young firefighter offered up these carefully calibrated words:

“I have been on the force three years nearly and never asked a man for his friendship or association. I made up my mind that I wouldn’t thrust myself on anybody. If they don’t like my skin, alright. But they have treated me square. I come and go like the rest of the firemen here. I see now that I am in the department what a tremendous undertaking it was for a man of my color to get in. I don’t think it could be done under another commissioner.

Not long after his quote appeared in print, Woodson was moved to Engine 5 in Manhattan. He stayed only four months. Then he was pushed over to Queens. He was transferred several times over his career, and no reason has been given for any of them except one: A few years after he got on the job, a lieutenant accused him of insubordination. Woodson was dragged into a departmental hearing. What happened behind those closed doors is unknown, but in the end Woodson was cleared of all charges. The lieutenant, however, was found to have committed an act that brought “discredit to the uniform of the department.”

Within two years, another black man, Wesley Williams, had forced his way into the FDNY, and this time in Manhattan, in the heart of Little Italy. Williams was determined to get more blacks into the parochial fire department, and he set himself upon a path that in 1940 would see the creation of the Vulcan Society, the very same organization that seventy-five years later would come out victorious in its civil rights lawsuit against the FDNY.

Williams’s amazing tale of survival and activism forms the backbone of my book, Firefight, and his story is woven into the modern narrative of today’s Vulcans who are a living reminder of his enduring legacy.

It is worth noting that in the past two years since the FDNY began hiring again after the bulk of the Vulcans’ lawsuit was settled (2013- 2015) more than three hundred black women and men have joined the New York City Fire Department. That is slightly more than all the African Americans hired for the past thirty years, from 1983 to 2013. And it all started with three courageous pioneers, William Nicholson, John H. Woodson, and Wesley Williams.