The Slow Burn

By Ginger Adams Otis


(An excerpt from Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest. "In the early 1900’s, NYC's firefighting force was 100 percent white and predominantly Irish. Almost 100 years later, the FDNY still lacks the diversity one would expect in a city known for its multiculturalism. Although there are two million African Americans in NYC, there are only about 300 black firefighters. Ginger Adams Otis explores this history, up to the recent 2014 settlement, with thorough research and determination to shed light on a group of people and a period of NYC history that has been kept in the dark. Firefight not only tells stories of courage on the job, but also the bravery of the men and women who had to fight an unjust system.")

Little Italy,

January 1919

Dainty Queen Anne leafwork and ornate carvings adorned the pretty limestone and ruddy brick exterior of Engine 55. The graceful arch over the vivid red door was topped by an elegant curlicue of black wrought iron, a shapely branch sprigged with young shoots. The decorative outer flourishes were a sharp contrast to the spartan sight that greeted Wesley Williams inside his new firehouse. Light streamed from the two round front windows across a concrete floor to illuminate a wide, square spare room. One of its rough walls was covered with racks holding rolled-up hoses. Another was crossed by a neat line of knee-length black jackets, each with a helmet hanging above it. Parked in the middle of the space was a hulking fire engine. A few benches were pushed off to one side, and a sleek metal pole bolted to the floor ran up through a hole in the ceiling and disappeared from Williams’s sight. In one corner, tucked close to the kitchen, he spied a black piano, obviously secondhand but polished until it glowed in the bright light. It was 8 a.m. on January 10, 1919, and fireman Wesley Williams was reporting for duty.

The men who’d been in the act of stacking their clothes on the shelves beneath the jackets turned in the doorway as Williams entered. Others were lounging on the benches, swapping stories. The room grew quiet. As the clock chimed the hour, an older man emerged from the staircase and strode to the middle of the room.

“Roll call,” he barked, and the men broke their statue-like poses.

“Clifford, M’Bride, Radigan, Chacon, Daley, Hopkins, O’Toole, Shields, Tussi, Carlin,” the man snapped out. The firefighters jumped to attention in two military lines in the middle of the room. Williams counted nearly 20 of them. Dropping his bag, he joined the nearest line. The man, obviously an officer, stopped in front of him.

“Williams,” the officer ground out. “Present,” Williams responded.

“Fall out,” said the man, who Williams surmised was the fire- house captain. The officer marched out of the room.

The men relaxed their stiff shoulders and a few wandered back to the benches to sit down. But still, nobody spoke. Williams set his duffle down by one of the empty pegs on the wall just as the captain reappeared. He gripped in his hand a bag not unlike the satchel Williams carried.

“Well, men,” the captain said, into the expectant silence. “I wish you the best of luck.” And with that, he walked across the floor and out the front door. Williams was the only person in the room who didn’t know that the captain was gone for good. The day Engine 55 learned it was going to have to swallow the stigma of working with a black man, the captain put in for a transfer—along with every single firefighter in the company. An order came back swift and stern from FDNY headquarters: the Negro stays, and so does everyone else. Knowing that if they let any of the firefight- ers switch assignments they’d never be able to keep a full roster, the FDNY decided to declare a moratorium on transfers out of Engine 55 for one year. When the captain was told he would not be allowed to transfer, he put in for retirement instead. He made no bones about the fact that he’d rather end his career than try to fight fires alongside a black man. He complained bitterly to his higher-ups that he was getting a bum deal. Williams should be stationed up in Harlem, the captain insisted. But FDNY brass didn’t think it was a good idea to have Williams in a black neighborhood, where he might end up having his friends come around. That left Williams stuck in Little Italy in a now captainless firehouse, alongside two lieutenants, three steamer engineers and 15 firemen—none of whom wanted him there.

One of those men, apparently a lieutenant, shoved himself off the wall he was leaning on.

“Show probationary firefighter Williams where things are and give him a bed,” the officer said to the firefighter nearest him. “Ev- eryone else, you know your assignments. Get busy.”

Williams took out the thick, long black jacket he was told to buy and hung it on the wall. Then he started arranging the rest of his clothes on the shelves underneath, like some of the other men had been doing when he came in.

“Say, can you play the piano?” asked the firefighter who’d been told to show him the ropes. “Do you sing and dance too?”

Williams lifted his head. An Irishman who answered to the name O’Toole during roll call regarded him balefully. But the oth- ers appeared to be at least curious about him. Some, no doubt an- ticipating an entertaining way to spend the long evenings when no fire calls came, looked at him hopefully.

“No, I can’t sing, can’t play the piano. I don’t dance either,” Williams answered in his easygoing way, and saw disappointment cross a few faces.

“But you all sing and dance and make music,” the firefighter protested.

“Nope, not all of us. I don’t, for one,” Williams replied. That was the last thing anybody said to him.

Despite the earlier orders from the lieutenant, nobody showed Williams where he should sleep. He explored the upstairs quarters on his own, after the entire crew spent the morning cleaning and scrubbing and then retreated into the kitchen for a shared communal meal. Williams didn’t venture in to join them. He had already gotten the message that proximity to the white firefighters’ food was a bad idea. He’d stepped into the kitchen midmorning to get a drink of water and when he set his cup down, one of the firefighters came in behind him and without a word swept it into the trash can. During lunch, he went upstairs and took his first look at his new sleeping arrangement—one large dormitory room full of military-style beds. The men sent the lieutenant to tell him he wasn’t welcome there.

“Listen here, Williams,” the officer said. “We’ll make a deal with you. We’ll start talking to you and let you eat with us on one condition. You take your bunk, you carry it downstairs and you sleep in the basement.”

Williams briefly considered the offer. The idea of being segregated to the basement held absolutely no appeal.

“I don’t think so,” Williams replied. “I’m not sleeping in the basement. I’m a firefighter in this company now, and I’m sleeping up here.”

He wound up getting assigned the bed in the least comfortable spot in the entire dorm, right next to the creaky bathroom door and positioned in such a way that the latrine light glared upon it. It certainly didn’t give Williams the feeling that he’d be getting a good night’s rest.

He expected his first days to be challenging and they were. The silent treatment continued, but the crew wasn’t as openly antagonistic as he’d feared. Nobody had tried to hit him yet. But the seething antipathy coming from several of the men wasn’t something to be ignored, especially since everybody else in the company seemed likely to develop a sudden case of blindness or deafness should things turn really ugly. It didn’t really matter to him if anyone in Engine 55 spoke to him or not. None of the men struck him as worth getting to know anyway. They continued the ridiculous ritual of breaking any dishes or cutlery that he touched, or just pushing whatever items he used into the garbage. Whenever he entered a room, they all stood and walked out. They’d decided to do their best to force him out, and that was fine by him. He’d already made a few discoveries on his own that made life inside the firehouse infinitely more palatable. The best part of Engine 55 for Williams was its deserted, wide-open roof. He found the small staircase above the third floor during one of his early solo explorations of the quaint firehouse. He stepped outside and took a deep breath of the biting January air, relieved to have a few moments far away from the crew downstairs. The shouts and yells from packed Broome Street called him to the parapet edge, and he peered over the side to get a view of the corners crowded with fast-talking immigrants. He didn’t know downtown as well as he knew Harlem and the Bronx, and a sense of excitement flowed into him as he watched the people hurrying on their day-to-day business. The street traffic was enticing as it hummed along, full of young school kids running home; Italian and Jewish housewives on errands, dressed in modest but spotless clothes; men of all ages and backgrounds either selling something or standing on street corners looking for work. Most of the buildings around him were taller than pocket-sized Engine 55. Clothes-lines were strung outside of back windows, a fluttering backdrop to the cramped tenement walk-ups. A cart loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables rumbled along the street, and Williams had felt a growl in his stomach when he saw it. He went back downstairs and ran to the first floor. The rest of the crew was still eating lunch, but he opened the door to the street and stepped outside. He only had to wait a few minutes before another street vendor came along. Williams waved him over to the firehouse and, by dint of gesturing and pointing, got some vegetables he could eat.

Even with the frigid cold, Williams spent plenty of time in his airy retreat. The roof held a large, circular structure shaped like a grain silo. It was the hose tower, where the crews hung their 50- foot water lines to dry. Williams turned the small vertical space into his own private weight lifting and workout area. It also became a haven for his books. He spent hours tucked inside, reading and studying how-to manuals on firefighting. When he emerged, he would pump out some jumping jacks and toe touches. Then he was ready to return to the tension on the main floor.

As his first week passed and he settled into his role as house pariah, Williams was grateful he’d gotten the ten days of training at the probationary academy, because nobody showed him anything. The all-white crew of Engine 55 treated him like a melanoma that had to be excised. Williams was acknowledged at the daily roll calls and assigned a large number of household chores. It was the usual subservient role for a probationary firefighter, except the men in Engine 55 went out of their way to make his list of unpleasant tasks utterly onerous. But to Williams’s surprise, as much as he was hated inside the firehouse, he was embraced outside its doors. The largely Italian community surrounding Engine 55 had their own history of culture clashes with the Irish. The firehouse, as always, was one of the focal points of the community. Very little went on inside that the Italians outside didn’t hear about, one way or another. Williams went out into the street as often as he could. Usually it was in search of food, because he decided it was too risky to eat anything that came out of the communal kitchen. Not that he could if he wanted to -- the firefighters refused to let him contribute to the pool of money they used to buy the food they cooked and prepared themselves in the kitchen. But even if he’d been invited to participate in the family-style meals, he would have declined. He was sure that, given a chance, one of the firefighters would slip him something to make him sick—or, even worse, hide something truly vile in his food and let him eat it, none the wiser. It would be a good joke that they would all laugh at later, and soon the story would spread through the entire fire department that the crew at Engine 55 had gotten that black man, and gotten him good.

* Ginger Adams Otis is a Harlem resident and staff writer for The Daily News.