Helped Fight Discrimination In Hartford Fire Department In 1950s
By STEVEN GOODE
March 29, 2010
When John B. Stewart joined the Hartford Fire Department in 1952, he immediately saw some things he didn't like.
As a black man, he didn't feel it was right to have to eat from different dishes or sleep in different bunks than his white counterparts used, and he was ready to make some noise about it.
"I felt it was wrong and I was ready to go to the NAACP," Stewart said.
But a fellow firefighter and a man who would be his mentor, Benjamin Laury Sr., would talk him out of it and assure him that, in due time, things would change.
Laury, who four years earlier was among the first six black men to become full-time Hartford firefighters, was a bit of an authority on change.
"He was truly a great person who used his common sense to fight discrimination," said Stewart, who would go on to become the department's first black lieutenant and chief.
Laury died last week at age 87, the last surviving member of the five men in that group who spent at least 25 years with the department. Laury retired in 1984.
The other long-serving members of the group were Harry Ashe, Frank Davis Jr., George B. Hayes and James Lewis, Stewart said. The sixth member of the group left the department after a short time, he said.
In addition to helping break the department's color barrier, Laury worked for several years in special services, teaching schoolchildren about fire safety, Stewart said. He was also instrumental in the creation of the department's Phoenix Society, a fraternal group for black firefighters, and the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, Stewart said
Laury and the others, Stewart said, were interested in helping those who came after them and instilled a willingness to reach out to Hispanics and later to women to join the department.
But for Stewart, who would be chief from 1980 to 1992, Laury's most important assets were his patience and maturity.
"He had a way of talking to you that you had to stop and listen," Stewart said.
Laury's widow, Lucille, said Monday that her husband knew that what he was doing was important to future generations of African Americans, and that it helped him stay on the job, even in bad times.
"He stuck it out and didn't let [discrimination] get to him," she said.
A memorial service is scheduled for today from 10 to 11 a.m. at the Carmon Windsor Funeral Home, 807 Bloomfield Ave. The funeral will be at 11 a.m., with the Rev. Jeffrey Powell, chaplain of the Hartford Fire Department, officiating.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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