COVER STORY

TRIAL BY FIRE

On the cusp of retirement, Jacksonville’s first class of black firefighters speaks out about what they’ve endured — and what the department’s future holds

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“Hey, Otis, come over here.”

When his captain used that nickname, James Edwards thought of it like someone beckoning him with a “Hey, fella.” No big deal. Edwards was new to the Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department in 1988, a 22-year-old rookie with a college degree and not a lot of experience with middle-aged white racists.

It was his father who explained to him that “Otis” was a slur, a way to reduce black men to generic buffoons.

When James McKinney’s lieutenant said he looked like someone who could pick out a good watermelon, the 19-year-old didn’t realize that he was being demeaned. He was new and eager to impress. If his lieutenant wanted a watermelon, he’d find one. He looked over the watermelons stacked in the grocery store while his lieutenant picked up other supplies for the crew. He saw it as an opportunity.

“I picked out what I thought would be the best watermelon there,” the engineer says with a rueful laugh.

 

“We were so young, we didn’t really know what was going on,” says Edwards, now a captain himself and the president of the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters, a black fraternal organization. “Now that I’m 48 years old, I say, ‘Dog, man, all I that time I thought they were joking with me, and there was some kind of racist connotation to what they were doing.’”

 

Racist slights, physical threats and abject disrespect were everyday occurrences for black firefighters at JFRD — from the first two African-Americans hired in 1969 and 1970, through the blacks hired by court order in the ’80s, even still today. When blacks joined the department in a hiring wave from 1987 to 1992, some of their white colleagues let it be known they weren’t welcome. The JFRD and the firefighters union also gamed the bureaucracy to give whites in the department an advantage — and when blacks complained, they
were punished.

Change came through lawsuits. The department was forced into hiring blacks by lawsuit, into promoting them by lawsuits, into establishing standardized assessment methods by lawsuit. And many white firefighters
resented it.

“There was always something done to make the wall higher,” says Alonza Bronner, who in 1970 became the city’s second black firefighter. “If African-Americans started moving up the ranks, they changed the rules.”

The firefighters who spoke with Folio Weekly for this story haven’t told their stories before. Decades after joining JFRD, they’re now approaching retirement. Most are plaintiffs in the six lawsuits the city faces, either as individuals or through the Brotherhood, and were hired after a court order forced JFRD to hire one black for every white to meet the requirements of a 1971
legal settlement.

Many of those 180 blacks hired between 1987 and 1992 who are still working for the fire department are now district chiefs, captains, lieutenants and engineers. They fought the prejudice, and did more than survive. They excelled. But they look behind them and see that there isn’t a generation in the wings waiting to take their places. In five years, there will be no black district chiefs, no black captains, only 10 black lieutenants. And it will take a decade for firefighters hired today to work their way into leadership.

“We are the last group,” Edwards says. “We are the baby group and a bunch of us are leaving. We just want to give people an opportunity,
like I had.”

“It’s going to be a miserable death.”

“Some of you ain’t going to make it today.”

Every day, when he arrived at the fire academy in the summer of 1988, Terrance Jones remembers hearing that refrain from his white instructors, followed by some dangerous exercise or another. For the black recruits, who were trained in all-black or mostly black classes, the training was especially brutal.

During his first week at the fire academy on Stockton Street, Jones recalls his white instructors bringing out the tallest ladder in their arsenal — a 110-foot extension ladder — and extending it up six stories over the I-10 overpass. They told the recruits to climb it in their firefighting gear.

The recruits had received no instruction in putting on their 47 pounds of bunker gear or how to climb ladders safely. Nonetheless, the instructors, believing blacks were scared of heights, told them to put on their gear, climb to the top of the ladder — with cars whizzing by underneath them on the interstate — lock in, lean back and clap their hands over their heads.

They didn’t know what locking in meant. And the ladder wasn’t secured to anything.

“Mind you, we don’t have gear that is properly sized,” recalls Jones, now the Brotherhood’s vice president. “We don’t know how to put on gear. We aren’t comfortable wearing our gear just walking around.”

If a man slipped, he’d be dead.

“It added to the intimidation factor,” Jones says. “You fall off, you’re going to get hit by a car. It’s going to be a miserable death.”

Edwards says the instructors also believed that African-Americans were claustrophobic and would panic inside a maze meant to duplicate conditions in a burning house. As part of their training, all recruits got into the maze, and then the instructors cut the oxygen supply to see if they’d remain calm. Everyone performed this exercise back then, but what was usually done for second or two for white trainees would be extended up to a minute or more for blacks.

Jones says he overheard his white instructors taking bets on how many of the black recruits they could get to quit. But the race-baiting and hostility backfired. It united the black recruits and made them more determined to prove themselves.

“I already put it in my head, come hell or high water, I’m going to finish,” Jones says.

The black firefighters banded together to study for their written exams. Lieutenant Rickey Adams, who graduated with Jones, remembers the reaction: “These scores are pretty high. Ba-boom. Someone’s cheating.”

Once the black firefighters cleared the hurdles put in front of them, the adversity they’d overcome worked to their advantage. Just one class of 13 black recruits eventually produced a black division chief, a black district chief, five black captains, two black lieutenants and four black engineers. 

“Look at that class right there,” Edwards says. “We are highest-ranking African-Americans on the job.”

“Because we were subjected to so much scrutiny, you made us sharper than sharp,” Jones adds. “Thank you!”

 

“This is still the South.”

Oliviette Coffey was the lead plaintiff in a federal class action lawsuit filed in 1971 charging that the city discriminated against blacks in hiring firefighters. The plaintiffs had a strong case: There were only two black firefighters on the force.

To address the imbalance, the city signed a consent decree in which it agreed to hire more blacks. But more than a decade passed between that 1971 settlement and the city actually undertaking efforts to recruit blacks in significant numbers, and that came about only because the plaintiffs went back to court and, in 1982, a federal judge ordered the city to hire one black for every white until the ratio in the department matched that of the population of the city, about 30 percent at the time.

It was still another five years before the city actually began the hiring. Between 1987 and 1992, the city launched a major recruitment effort to hire blacks. JFRD attracted military veterans, junior college students and college graduates to a white force where most of their superiors had high school diplomas.

The city unilaterally decided in 1992 that it had met the requirements of that settlement, and no longer needed to do one-for-one hiring. But it never sought the court’s approval. So a new generation of blacks took the city back to court, and in 2009, U.S. District Judge Timothy Corrigan reopened the 1971 case, which is still pending today.

In their request to reopen the case and declare that the city had violated the agreement, the plaintiffs’ attorneys reported that between 1993 and 2007, the city hired only 95 black firefighters, compared to 653 whites.

“You go out to the fire academy and look on the wall of every graduating class. Look at the pictures and see how many black faces you see,” says Wanda Butler, who retired as a firefighter in 2006 after 27 years with JFRD.

There are currently six federal lawsuits alleging hiring discrimination, promotions discrimination and a hostile workplace at JFRD — lawsuits joined by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, the Department of Justice, the NAACP, the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters and 26 individual firefighters.

So far, the city hasn’t offered any meaningful settlement during mediation sessions conducted over the past five years. The problem, Adams says, is that Jacksonville won’t admit it has a problem. “Just based on this city and its history, I think they will fight it tooth and nail, regardless of what the costs. This is still the South. It is still Jacksonville. We’ve made progress, but this is still a racist city.”

Fire Chief Martin Senterfitt declined to comment for this story because doing so might jeopardize the pending litigation.

 

“Was it crushing? Well, yeah.”

At 22, James Edwards was back in Jacksonville, living with his mother and working as a substitute teacher. He’d earned a bachelor’s degree in American history at Western Kentucky University. He figured he’d teach high school eventually, after he’d finished playing football.

Edwards had been a football star at Andrew Jackson Senior High School. He played for WKU on scholarship. (The school inducted him into its Hall of Fame last year.) When he graduated, the NFL was interested. The Miami Dolphins picked him up, and he played for the legendary Don Shula, but only for seven weeks, and then he was cut.

“Football, that’s all I wanted to do. Not going to lie. I went to college to play football,” Edwards says. “Was it crushing? Well, yeah. All your life as a kid, you dream of playing in the league.”

Edwards was up late one night watching television when he caught a commercial for the Jacksonville Fire & Rescue Department. The JFRD was recruiting minority candidates. Two banks were offering loans for the fire academy at low interest rates. When the recruit got hired, the bank would take the payments out of his salary.

Within three weeks of being cut by Miami, Edwards was in training to become a firefighter. Then his agent called: “New Orleans wants you to come out.” But by then, Edwards felt like he had a sure thing with the city. “I was deep into the fire department. ‘Naw, I’m already here. I’ll stay with the fire services.’ I could have went out there and just got cut again.”

But the reality of the fire department was a rude awakening for the ex-football star.

The city had been forced into hiring black recruits by the Coffey lawsuit, and white firefighters made sure they knew they weren’t wanted. During training, Edwards says, the white instructors looked for any excuse to flunk the black candidates.

When Edwards arrived at his assigned fire station after making it through training, no one would shake his hand. His captain sneeringly asked him what his sob story was. Had he been raised by a single mom? Had he been homeless? The captain also had a thing about calling all black men “Otis.” It was a joke, and it wasn’t.

“In all my dealings with white males, I had never dealt with that type of judgmental attitude,” Edwards says.

That disrespect was even more prevalent if you happened to be black and a woman. 

Wanda Jones, who joined the fire department in 1979, was as one of the department’s first female recruits. She slept in the same dorms as the men, without any privacy. When she arose before the others to get dressed, another firefighter would throw off his sheets and masturbate while she walked to the restroom. Another of her fellow firefighters often laced his diatribes with the N-word, she says. Complaining was useless.

“They thought it was funny,” she says. When she was finally transferred to a more hospitable station, the difference was dramatic. “I thought I died and went to heaven. They actually knew my name was Wanda.”

 

“I’m going to push back.”

Terrance Jones had a plan: finish his AA degree at Florida Junior College (now Florida State College at Jacksonville) and then enter the military. He’d been in ROTC at Englewood High School. He’d go straight to officer candidate school.

But his best friend, Da’mon Johnson, had other ideas. Johnson’s father was a Vietnam veteran with bitter memories of his treatment in the Army.

When Jones refused to drop the military idea, Johnson, a firefighter himself, went to FJC, impersonated him and dropped him out of all his classes, then enlisted him in the fire academy and paid the $240 tuition.

Jones was angry, but it was too late to
switch back. “He knew me and knew how competitive I was,” Jones says. “He knew it would not be fair. And he knew, if you do me like that, I’m going to push back.”

Jones wouldn’t stand for intimidation by his overweight and less-educated white instructors, and he let them know it. At 18 years of age, 6-foot-4-inches and 215 pounds, he was imposing and possessed of a quick mind. When an instructor insulted him, Jones responded sardonically, in a hyperbolic suck-up voice, “I’m encouraged daily by your presence.” 

If men of their inferior physique and intelligence could be firefighters, he reasoned, so could he.

He would offer to go first when the white instructors ordered the trainees to climb ladders, crawl through mazes or jump out of a three-story window into a net.

“Keep in mind, the fire department is an extension of the city we live in,” he says. “So the feelings, the racial feelings in the street will be in the fire department. It’s not going to be any different. It’s entrenched in the South, and it’s entrenched in Jacksonville.”

Jones was usually the only black firefighter on his shift. The prejudice was in his face. 

“They would say racial stuff,” he says. “Lot of white officers didn’t want blacks to drive them in a fire truck. They’d say, ‘Ain’t no nigger ever going to drive me.’ If you had to transfer to another station for the day, they’d go ballistic with the chief. ‘I already got one.’ They were trying to ease us into [the white firefighters] without offending them, but our presence offended them.”

The racism didn’t just infect relations within the department; it also tainted the quality of the service they provided. Several of the black firefighters say that in poor black neighborhoods, firefighters would needlessly tear down ceilings, knock down walls and throw people’s possessions on the street. In Mandarin, they’d put down runners so as not to ruin
the carpeting.

 

“They just waved a magic wand.”

JFRD preserved white dominance by gaming the rules.

Prior to 1979, a firefighter moved through the ranks from firefighter to lieutenant to captain to district chief. But that year, the city added the rank of engineer, which paid a little more than firefighter — so it was a welcome addition — and was introduced as an appointed position that didn’t affect a firefighter’s opportunity to test for lieutenant after three years on the job.

The department appointed more than 300 white firefighters to that rank, then changed the rules. To be an engineer, firefighters had to test for it, not just be appointed. And
then, just before JFRD began its one-for-
one hiring in 1987, came another change.
The department moved the engineer rank into the line of promotion, which meant that before the new black recruits could test for lieutenant, they’d have to first become engineers.

At the time of that change, about 91
black firefighters were eligible to take the exam for promotion to lieutenant. Afterward, only 11 were. The rest had to become engineers first. But 75 percent of whites who were
eligible to take the lieutenant test — 300 of 400 — remained eligible.

“They just waved a magic wand and all 300 spots were filled,” Jones says. “Then we had to wait a couple of years for someone to retire to take the test.”

“You can’t put out a fire with no book.”

While firefighting is a physical job, promotions are decided only by scores on a multiple-choice test. The highest scorers enter the leadership ranks based on the test results, with no additional training in employee management or leadership skills.

In a lawsuit filed in 2011 by 26 African-American firefighters and joined by the Department of Justice and others in 2012, the firefighters allege that the exams don’t test for the skills actually needed on the job. Most other fire departments, as well as the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, give both a written exam and oral exams along with performance evaluations based on real-life scenarios.

“My rank is higher than lot of African-Americans,” Edwards says. “I had a college background and it’s a multiple-choice test. It ain’t really testing your skills, it’s testing your recall ability. Book and pencil work. I can do that all day.”

But that’s not what you need to be a good captain. “You can’t put out a fire with no book. You can’t put out a fire with no pencil,” Edwards says. “You got to have some physicality. You got to have leadership skills. It’s a vocational job. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist. You’ve got to have a little bit of courage and a little bit of heart to go in there and do the job.”

For years, black firefighters have suspected that some of their white counterparts score well on the exams because they’ve been coached. In a deposition in 2008, District Chief Steven Gerbert admitted that he used test questions from past exams for study sessions (presumably for white firefighters) at his house — which the blacks took as evidence of their suspicions.

In a separate lawsuit, Jones alleges that the methods used to prepare the tests give department officials inside information about the tests’ questions, and this information is then shared with favored white firefighters.

“I’m not an angry black man.”

Engineer Prella Hollie joined the fire department in 2000 after retiring from the Army with 20 years of service. He retired on 80 percent disability, the result of torn-up shoulders and knees. He also retired having served as a master sergeant and drill sergeant in the Army. He came to JFRD understanding how a paramilitary operation works. But his skills weren’t wanted, he says. Instead, he was threatened and punished for sticking up for himself. After 14 years in JFRD, he’s just hoping to be left alone until he can retire. 

“I came on thinking because I was from the military, they would like me,” he says.

He says an officer at the first fire station he was assigned to screamed at him when he put in for a transfer to a station closer to his home: “I’ll kill that black motherfucker.” When Hollie filled out an EEOC complaint and went to the city’s employment advisor, he didn’t get much help. One counselor told him to think about a different line of work. Another told him to pray for a good outcome.

When he first took the test for engineer, Hollie ranked fourth on the list and received the promotion. He’d had 10 points added to his score because he’s a disabled veteran. But a few months later, the department stripped him of the rank, telling him he shouldn’t have been given the military disability points. When he achieved the rank of engineer a second time, a lieutenant told him nobody wanted him because he’s a troublemaker.

“I’m not an angry black man,” he says. “I was the equal opportunity representative in the military. I went from top of my class to troublemaker because I stood up for myself.”

“The same chance we did.”

After the Coffey suit was re-filed in 2007, JFRD again began recruiting blacks in earnest. 

Then-Chief Dan Kleman started a cadet school in which a firefighter could receive paid on-the-job training while attending the fire academy. The department also started a program to groom future firefighters at A. Philip Randolph Academies of Technology High School. But these efforts were hindered by the recession and complaints from white firefighters that blacks were being coddled; both have been discontinued.

There are still opportunities for black would-be firefighters today. In fact, if an African-American completes the fire academy and receives his state certification as an emergency medical technician or paramedic, he has a very good chance of being hired. But the cost to get certified can be prohibitive, as much as $10,000 for all the training — and there isn’t any financial aid available.

“We don’t say not to hire blacks any more, but we have a system in place that we can’t penetrate because we don’t have the money and we can’t use scholarship money, can’t use grants,” Jones says. 

“People just need an opportunity,” Edwards adds. “You never know what somebody can be until you give them a chance. We just want others to have the same chance that we did.”

No matter what the city does now, it can’t fix a looming problem. Most of the JFRD’s black officers are about to retire. And there are very few blacks ready to take their places.

“I’m ending my career at a beautiful station [on Heckscher Drive],” Jones says. “I have no complaints if it ends like this. But I can’t sit back and let evil continue to exist. The next generation is not as strong as us, so I want to level the playing field before I leave.”

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