Ginger Adams Otis’ new book Firefight: The Century-Long Battle to Integrate New York’s Bravest (2015 Palgrave MacMillan) offers a fresh look at New York City’s firefighters’ critical Civil Rights history.
Firefight is a narrative from veteran reporter Ginger Adams Otis that delves deep into the struggle of black firefighters to truly integrate the FDNY – the largest fire department in the U.S.
It sheds light on the long, painful effort to achieve the still-elusive post-racial America and shares the untold history of the black men and women who battled to join the Bravest.
Based on nearly 10 years of reporting and interviews with firefighters, Firefight brings to life the historical and modern challenges that kept the doors of New York City firehouses closed to blacks – and women and Latinos too.
The story touches on the earliest struggles of pioneering blacks who had to eat and sleep apart from their mostly-Irish brothers, and explores the inner-workings of the City Hall politics that finally forced the issue into the courts – and brought in the federal Department of Justice.
- Vivid accounts of Wesley Williams, one of the first African-Americans to join the FDNY in 1919. His narrative showcases the African-American determination to move beyond slavery, and the refusal of northern blacks to be “Jim Crowed.”
- The private skirmishes between Mayor Bloomberg, FDNY top brass and FDNY Capt. Paul Washington, a second-generation black firefighter who dedicated his 25-year career to getting more applicants of color on the job.
- Insider details on why the Bloomberg administration took the case to trial, even knowing that with 300 black firefighters out of a force of 11,000 – less than 3% — the city was almost certain to lose. When it did, the cost to taxpayers was nearly $100 million – all for a lawsuit Bloomberg could have settled for nothing.
- A careful exploration of the supposedly unbiased civil service testing system designed more than 100 years ago, and the competition and infighting between city agencies that allowed it to fall woefully behind the times.
- A look at life inside firehouse walls, the friendships and betrayals that have strained and inflamed firefighter bonds, along with high-energy tales of survival doing one of the world’s most dangerous jobs.
- The legacy of the Vulcan Society, the fraternal organization of black firefighters born out of Wesley Williams’ battles, a leader in the national fight in the 1930s and 40s to integrate fire departments in L.A., Boston, Chicago, Baltimore and Philly, and now, in 2015, headed by Regina Wilson, one of the FDNY’s few black female firefighters.
Ginger Adams Otis has been writing about New York City and local politics for more than a decade. She is a staff writer at the NY Daily News and previously worked at the NY Post. Otis started covering City Hall and the Fire Department when she worked for The Chief-Leader. She’s been a radio and print freelancer for WNYC, the Associated Press, BBC, National Public Radio, The Village Voice and national magazines such as Jane and Ms. She lives in Harlem, NY.
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