About 40 years ago, a group of black Hartford firefighters got together and formed a fraternal organization to help members advance in the leadership ranks.
The Phoenix Society's primary role was to get members positioned for promotions, mostly through study groups. For decades, whites — mostly Irish and Italians — were the predominant members and leaders of most fire departments. Being a firefighter was a generational thing, a career passed on from parent to child.
Historically, ethnic minorities seeking promotions in firehouses have had concerns. The makeup of the test. The complexion of the oral board interviewing candidates. Getting access to study groups, which through generational connections, knew what to study for.
In 1980, John B. Stewart Jr. became Hartford's first black fire chief. It was a historic moment for the city. But, like Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's home run record, the achievement took its toll on Stewart and his family. They were deluged with racist and ugly phone calls and letters. Most of the missives had one thing in common — liberal and creative uses of the n-word.
Years after Stewart retired in 1992, his wife, Gladys, still refused to answer the phone.
Three consecutive African American chiefs followed Stewart. The current chief, Charles Teale, was a rookie in 1982 with a high school equivalency diploma. He later earned an associate's degree in fire technology and administration, a bachelor's degree in human services from Springfield College and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Hartford.
Teale was working on his doctorate when he was promoted to chief nine years ago. The HFD now has about 360 members, about 45 percent of them African American or Latino. It is a department highly regarded for its firefighting acumen and quest for the latest technology.
Its leadership ranks are also diverse: 20 percent of the captains are black or Latino, as are 35 percent of the lieutenants.
The HFD is a model for how a department can diversify its personnel without compromising competence. It's got some issues, which I wrote about a couple of weeks back, and over the years black, white and Latino firefighters have complained about bias in promotions. But the HFD is a testament to the importance of inclusion in a 21st century public service operation.
When Stewart, now 78, was in command he made sure all his charges were aware of opportunities to advance their education and training.
"He was the first chief to demand that we further our education. ... All of us," said Steve Harris, a retired captain who is African American.
Stewart also made sure that the oral boards that interviewed firefighters seeking promotion were more diverse.
Today, there are second-generation minorities in the HFD. Teale says that besides the written and oral tests, he considers experience, training, leadership, pursuit of additional education and command presence.
This is all to say that the Supreme Court case involving a claim of reverse discrimination by 19 white and one Hispanic New Haven firefighters has generated national attention. New Haven was under political pressure to diversify its leadership ranks and balked when a standardized promotional test it gave five years ago resulted in a list of candidates who are overwhelmingly white.
Something wrong with the test? Maybe not.
Something wrong the process? Now, we're on to something.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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