Review of Ginger Adams Otis’s “Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest”

tags: racism, book review, Ginger Adams Otis, Firefight

Paul Moses is the author of "An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians" (New York University Press, 2015). He is a professor of journalism at CUNY-Brooklyn College and a former Newsday reporter and editor.

Firefighters have always played an outsized role in the public’s imagination. That’s particularly so in New York City, where they’ve been dubbed the “Bravest” since the 19th century. The corps’ cohesiveness reinforces its ethic of courage: Jobs are passed down the generations from fathers to sons, occasionally to sons whose fathers perished in the line of duty.

But that is no excuse for the racial discrimination that persisted in the Fire Department for a century, as New York Daily News reporter Ginger Adams Otis writes in a new book that sheds light on how favoritism can riddle a civil service system supposedly based on merit.

Firefight follows this on two tracks. It begins with the absorbing story of a pioneering African American firefighter, Wesley Williams, who joined the Fire Department in 1919 and confronted blatant racial discrimination with great vigor. Interspersed with Williams’s escapades are chapters that report on the adventures of a group of outspoken black firefighters who took on billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg to prevail in a landmark race discrimination lawsuit. A federal judge found in 2011 that for some 40 years, the city had discriminated against minority candidates in hiring and ordered that a federal monitor oversee the process.

The two story lines complement each other. We see from the start that the problems that led to the court case—as of 2012, just 3 percent of New York’s firefighters were black—are rooted in games played with the civil service dating to Williams’s time.

Williams excelled in the 1918 civil service test for firefighter, but almost didn’t get the job because of a “one-in-three” rule. It meant that Fire Department bosses could choose one in three candidates on the hiring list, which opened the door to manipulation. “It was a pattern that would stay with the fire department for the next 100 years,” Otis writes.

No doubt because of his race, Williams languished on the list. But as it turned out he also knew how to play this game. His father, head of the Red Caps who handled baggage at the city’s rail terminals, counted friends such as former President Teddy Roosevelt and an influential Tammany donor. A character reference from Roosevelt and a nudge from the donor helped him to get the coveted job he merited.

Williams was routinely subject to outright bigotry or at best simply ostracized in the firehouse -- this gave him the opportunity to read a lot, which prepared him for civil service tests and eventual promotion to lieutenant and battalion chief.

He was an accomplished boxer, a skill he had to draw on frequently since it was the custom for men to settle their differences, one-on-one with no spectators, in the firehouse basement. Ultimately, he rose to command white firefighters – after opposing a move to create an all-black unit for him to lead.

Otis writes about this fluidly, and with impressive detail. Perhaps because he was forced to spend so much time alone in the firehouse, Williams was a prolific letter writer. His family donated his private papers to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, and Otis makes excellent use of this resource. She also acquired a recorded interview with Williams and many records about the struggles of other black firefighters against firehouse bigots from the unofficial historian of the Vulcan Society.

The Vulcans, who trace back to Williams’s time in the department, were the association of black firefighters who filed a lawsuit against the Bloomberg administration. Otis sketches good portraits of the leaders of the group and renders some riveting scenes of their skirmishes with firefighters from an opposing group called Merit Matters. This group of white firefighters accused the Vulcans of trying to “dumb down” the written civil service test; the Vulcans’ response was that the tests didn’t really determine who was best qualified to be a firefighter.

As Otis tells it, the devil was also to be found in the details of the secret process for determining which passing candidates were chosen from the list. The procedure was designed to weed out undesirable candidates—for example, drug abusers or those with criminal records—but it was filled with loopholes that benefited the candidates who had a hook in the department. The Vulcans showed that the rules were applied more severely to minority candidates.

Otis made a good decision to unite these two story lines in one book. While the story of Wesley Williams could stand on its own as a book--- one suspects he would have wanted it told this way with an eye to continued reform of a system he took on nearly a century ago. It’s a timely book, given the renewed soul-searching over the legacy of racism in American institutions, and a history that is well researched and gracefully told.

comments powered by Disqus