If an intelligent, physically fit man were to offer his services to society to save lives and property from destruction one would assume such services would be heartily welcomed and much appreciated. Well not so fast, because for over 100 years African-American folk offered such services to the New York City Fire Department and were told ‘No thank you, this is white man’s territory.’
This history of blatant racism is told in this great book, “Firefight,” by Ginger Adams Otis. It is his-story, her-story, our story — heroic on one side, shameful on the other and Otis tells it all in brilliant storytelling fashion on how the folks with white skins got them blackened in fires and folks were black skins were kept away from arenas where skins got blackened.
The Fire Department was dominated by the Irish and laterally by the Italians and their sons and grandsons and despite so-called competitive exams it was quite amazing how very few folks of color could be found to qualify. A few did, and these brave souls formed the Vulcan Society and bit by bit the numbers are changing and now when firefighters emerge from the fire faces blackened, all we know is that people were saved, the fire put out and the job done. The book “Firefight” is entertaining read but also an inspiring saga of a few intensely courageous tenacious visionaries who faced two enemies — fire and bigotry — one with water and the other with faith and example. This book is far more absorbing than any fiction and if you are not a New Yorker, dive in — you will qualify to be native of this city by just reading “Firefight.”Malachy McCourt