Eight years before enslavement was ended in the United States in 1857, the city of St. Louis established its Fire Department. It took 56 more years before the city would hire their first African American Firefighter in 1921. It would then take over 20 more years for the total number of African American Firefighters to exceed 15. As troubling and ugly as those statistics are, they do not paint the entire picture of how racism impacted the Fire Department. When the number of African American officers hired is factored into the evaluation, the picture is even grimmer—only four African Americans were promoted to Captain during this same 20 year period.
The City of St Louis continued this pattern of relentless and systematic racism in the Fire Department for decades. Consider this: from 1921 until 1976 there were never more than 4 African American Captains serving on the department. A promotion to Captain for an African American only occurred if one of the 4 existing Captains died, was fired or retired.
Racism clearly played a role in whether an African American was hired or promoted but that was not its only role. Racism also ensured that African American Firefighters would be the recipients of the most heinous type of treatment.
It difficult to mentally absorb the weight of a life lived by an African American under constant, virulent racist assaults. These African American Firefighters in St. Louis were assaulted verbally by their superiors with racist epitaphs, they were corralled into inferior accommodations at the engine houses and they were forced to join the union–Local 73. The union then used their dues to hire attorneys to fight against the hiring and promotion of African American Firefighters.
At this point, the choice was clear for African American firefighters in St. Louis. They made the historic and fearless decision to no longer allow the union to take their money without representation—Black firefighters left the union. After the African American firefighters left Local 73, they were unrepresented but at least they were not paying a union that refused to represent them.
This “union-less” position allowed African American firefighters to begin to organize membership. And in 1967 F.I.R.E. was born. As Wendell H. Goins, one of the founders of F.I.R.E. stated: “Giving the Local Union 73, our dues money, is just like giving somebody the money to buy bats and bullets to bust us up side the head with!”
It was that type of energy, vision and love of community that propelled F.I.R.E. into the history books. F.I.R.E. was the first African American firefighter organization that won a discrimination civil lawsuit against a city. In 1976, F.I.R.E. successfully sued and was granted the nation’s first court ordered consent decree. As a result of this successful lawsuit, 50/50 hiring and promotional practices began in St. Louis. F.I.R.E. did not stop with St. Louis. Membership and leadership understood the old adage “none of us are free if one of us is chained.” So F.I.R.E. took their success to the International convention and instructed other Black Firefighter organizations to go back home and sue your cities into compliance with the law. And they did. Because of F.I.R.E.’s successful lawsuit, the number of African American firefighters grew from approximately 2,000 in 1976 to 10,000 and by 1996, the numbers had reached 20,000. Today, the number of African American firefighters nearly tops 30,000.
Over 40 years later, as Missouri’s oldest public safety civil rights organization, F.I.R.E. continues to lead as an organization dedicated to assuring fairness and equal treatment in the hiring practices of the St. Louis Fire Department.