Black History in the Flesh
Fire Department honors those who blazed the path
The Winston-Salem Fire Department kept up what has become a Black History Month tradition last Friday, honoring former African American firefighters who paved the way.
This year’s honorees included the four black men who have held the Department’s highest rank: chief.
“I loved every minute of this job,” said honoree John Gist, who served as chief from 1998–2008. “I loved having the opportunity to serve the city and hopefully, opened the doors for some young people to come behind me.”
Gist, who retired after a total of 31 years with the Department, was chief on Sept. 11, 2001 and thusly was charged with implementing the city’s emergency response plan. He aspired to be a firefighter ever since he took a childhood field trip in the 1950s to see the men of the original Engine 4, the city’s first African American firefighters.
“When I met them, they seemed so much larger than life and strong,” Gist recalled.
The late Lester Ervin was among the Engine 4 firefighters. He would go on to serve as the city’s first black fire chief, from 1980-1989. Later, from 1993-1998, Otis Cooper would become the city’s second African American chief. Gist was succeeded by the current chief, Antony Farmer. For 29 of the last 33 years, the WSFD has been led by an African American, a fact that seemed unlikely when the city integrated Fire Station No. 4 on Dunleith Avenue in 1951. Engine 4 was manned by seven white firefighters who volunteered to serve alongside the city’s first eight firemen. The surviving black members of Engine 4 were again saluted at this year’s program, which was held at the headquarters of Goodwill Industries of Northwest North Carolina on University Parkway and attended by city leaders like Mayor Allen Joines and Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke.
“Sometimes things happen because someone would have to say to folks ‘This needs to happen,’ and (with) these great former first black firemen, someone said it had to happen,” said Burke. “And they did their jobs with so much love, kindness and dignity.”
Only half of the city’s first eight black fighters are still living. Robert L. Grier, Willie J. Carter, Raphael O. Black and John Rio Thomas were all on hand to receive praise and gratitude.
Grier said the African Americans of Engine 4 knew that they were being scrutinized closely and one wrong move could have led critics to surmise that blacks did not have what it takes.
“We had a job to do,” he said. “We knew everyone was counting on us, and we knew if we had failed – just like Jackie Robinson or anybody else who could’ve failed – that would’ve been all of it, so we had to be an example.”
Progress is still being made at the WSFD. Chief Farmer said when he joined in 1983, there were 25 black firefighters. Today, he leads a Department that is about 28 percent black and increasingly Hispanic and female.
Farmer said he’s indebted to those who came before him and that it’s important for the WSFD to take the time to remember its history.
“I revere history. I look at those folk that have come before us and, typically, certainly I’m proud of African-Americans, but anybody that has contributed to society, I like to see what those things are,” said Farmer, who lists his biggest challenge as chief as maintaining the quality of his force in these times of budgetary uncertainty. “…I think we should always remind ourselves of what people did before us and what it means for us now in the present day.”