Working for the Public: Black Firefighters and the FDNY
Reviewed by Nick Juravich
David Goldberg’s Black Firefighters in the FDNY opens in court, where Judge Nicholas Garaufis of the Eastern District ruled in 2012 that the New York City Fire Department “knowingly and intentionally implemented and maintained racially discriminatory hiring processes throughout its history.” It is this history of segregation, and of resistance to it, that Goldberg chronicles masterfully, from firehouse fistfights to fraternal organizations to federal litigation. Black firefighters faced tremendous obstacles; as Goldberg explains in the introduction, “no group of white workers better exemplifies the prolonged nature of white resistance and recalcitrance to Black equality more than white firefighters and their politically powerful and influential union, the International Association of Firefighters.” Black firefighters responded by building “a tradition of resistance, militancy, and race consciousness” both inside and beyond their profession, which generated “intergenerational activism, civic and community-centered coalition building, and the immersion and intersection of their struggle with local and national Black freedom movements.”
By analyzing this conflict across a century, Goldberg avoids simple narratives of heroism or declension. He shows how certain strategies and conditions generated jobs and justice for Black firefighters and their communities, while other political decisions and economic shifts favored the white backlash. If the 2012 decision serves as hopeful endpoint, Goldberg is clear that a court’s ruling alone will not render the FDNY an equitable institution; in fact, one of the central questions the book sets out to answer is why an earlier ruling, in 1973, failed so badly.
Indeed, it is impossible to read Black Firefighters and the FDNY today without another, far less hopeful ruling in mind, that of Janus v. AFSCME. Black Firefighters was published before the Supreme Court’s decision, but Janus represents the culmination of long-running attacks on the public sector, which, as Goldberg writes, are in part “a direct assault on the gains secured by the civil rights and Black Power movements and the demographic, spatial, and political transformation of American cities since the 1960s.” In a post-Janus world, the broad questions that shape Goldberg’s study of Black firefighters are particularly urgent. How can workers who do not enjoy the protections of the liberal order seek justice and equality on the job? How can they convince the communities they serve to support them? And how and why does public-sector work matter, both as a source of well-paying, stable jobs and as a visible space for the practice and performance of full and equal citizenship?
Goldberg opens with an overview of how the FDNY became ethnically insular and racially exclusive. Late-19th-century professionalization and bureaucratization, intended to curb the power of urban bosses, ended up generating “even greater political and administrative autonomy than before and solidified Irish control” of both the FDNY and NYPD.” What professionalization did provide was prestige and power, such that by the early 20th century, firefighting jobs were “the crown jewel of the public sector.” In addition to offering a steady, high-paying job that did not require extensive formal education, “firefighting represented a revered site of American cultural significance from which Blacks could actively and definitively dispel widely accepted social Darwinist stereotypes regarding Black inferiority, primitivism, and manhood.”
The first Black firefighters, Goldberg writes, “faced heinous acts of barbarity and racism from departmental leaders and rank and file alike,” but “survived with dignity.” Goldberg’s research is remarkably detailed, as were the hazings that Black firefighters endured. The turning point came in the form of Wesley Williams, a uniquely connected and intensely talented individual who built on “New Negro manhood and militancy” to forge not just a place for himself and others in the department, but to launch a movement carried on by the first Black firefighters’ organization in the nation, the Vulcan Society.
Williams -- an award-winning bodybuilder whose appointment to the FDNY in 1919 was championed by Theodore Roosevelt, and who retired as a Battalion Chief in 1952 -- deserves a biography of his own, but he was also an organizer. In the 1930s, having secured his place in the FDNY, Williams began calling meetings of Black firefighters, to promote their own interests and to make places for more of their own in the department. Their group coalesced as Fiorello La Guardia toppled of the Tammany machine and began winning New Deal dollars for New York City, creating an opening for their activism. Black firefighters pushed through this opening with “sustained, coordinated, and collective mass political pressure” that took place within a “militant, effectively, and highly active Black united front in New York that focused on jobs and justice and working-class-oriented Black activism in the 1930s and early 1940s.”
In 1940, Black firefighters founded the Vulcan Society, which was “much more than a fraternal organization” and “refused to separate labor and community struggles and joined forces with a variety of pre-existing organizations to fight for racial equality and Double Victory as World War II began.” Goldberg cites the Society’s mission statement, whose first point makes the connection clear: “To reduce the loss of life and property due to fire, especially in Negro communities where fire losses are particularly high.” This statement captures the importance of representation beyond simple visibility or performances of manhood; Black firefighters, the Vulcans believed, would better protect Black communities. The entire document demonstrates the deep community connections that the Vulcan Society cultivated in lieu of access to more traditional labor-movement tools like collective bargaining. The Society built on these connections in the 1940s and 1950s, becoming “a model of effective public-sector civil rights unionism” and making the FDNY the most integrated department in the nation.
However, in the 1960s, Goldberg writes, the Vulcan Society followed the trajectory of many formerly-militant labor organizations, and “focused on making policy rather than trying to influence it from below.” By winning the ear of mayor John Lindsay, the Vulcans saw one of their own, Robert Lowery, appointed City Fire Commissioner in 1966. Lowery himself had risen through the ranks, and was active in both the Vulcan Society and the NAACP. However, as Goldberg shows, the appointment proved primarily symbolic. The presence of “A Black Face in a High Place,” as Goldberg titles his chapter, was both the culmination of years of struggle and a hollow prize.
As Lowery took command, the FDNY was entering “the War Years,” remembered in department lore for “the unparalleled number of fires that burned and destroyed whole sections of the city, impossible demands placed on firefighters, severe cutbacks, and rising racial tensions between the public and the department.” White firefighters responded to Lowery’s appointment with backlash from “every angle” making him, and by extension, the Black firefighters he represented, a scapegoat for the FDNY’s challenges. While Goldberg’s accounting of Lowery’s best efforts is sympathetic, his subtitle -- “reform, retrenchment, and the limitations of racial liberalism” -- captures the arc of Lowery’s story. Younger Black firefighters, many inspired by the Black Power movement, did seek a more active and confrontational movement, but rather than risk a split within the Vulcan society, they focused their energies on creating a national organization of Black firefighters that would, ironically, win significant gains in a great many cities other than New York in the 1970s and 1980s.
Lowery’s two terms as Fire Commissioner came to an end in 1973, just as the Vulcan Society appeared to win a class-action lawsuit against the FDNY, Vulcan Society v. City Civil Service Commission. The case was part of a national wave of such suits by Black firefighters (and several other organizations of Black workers), many of whom took their cues and inspiration from the Vulcans. However, the FDNY, white firefighters, and their union had spent eight years building a backlash against Lowery, and they responded with recalcitrance, obfuscation, outright lies, and the deployment of a new language of “race neutrality.” Their resistance was made more effective by New York City’s fiscal crisis and ensuing years of austerity politics, which stalled new hiring efforts. In the three decades that followed the 1973 decision, as cities elsewhere agreed to significant, court-ordered integration plans, New York exemplified the dynamic that Ibram X. Kendi has described as “racial progress” followed by “racist progress.” Despite having been the most integrated department in the country when Lowery was appointed in 1966, by the turn of the 21st century, Black firefighters accounted for just under three percent of the FDNY.
The Vulcan Society’s turnaround, Goldberg shows, was facilitated by a return to civil-rights unionism. Under Captain Paul Washington’s leadership, the Vulcans spoke out against the police killing of Amadou Diallo, built better connections to political and community organizations, and worked both within and outside the system. As Washington put it to Goldberg, in the face of such extensive systemic segregation, “civility” was a non-starter: “We aren’t trying to be fair, we’re not trying to be nice. We’re gonna hit you any way we could.” Washington and the Vulcans’ willingness to take on the city helped accelerate their case and build pressure on the FDNY, leading to the 2012 decision. The extent of the victory remains to be seen, but the lessons Goldberg draws from it are clear: this kind of movement-based, aggressively political organizing “could and should serve as a model for the mainstream American labor movement.” It is a prescient conclusion in light of the Janus v. AFSCMEdecision, and Goldberg’s book is a valuable record of this organizing tradition for workers who seek justice in its wake.
Nick Juravich is an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at New-York Historical Society, and Associate Editor of Gotham.