RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — In 1950, the City of Richmond hired its first African American firefighters; they were members of Engine Company Number 9.
“We had some pretty smart fellows to come on in 1950,” 89-year old Bernard Lewis told 8News, reflecting in the den of his home.
“The things we had to do, it didn’t seem connected with the fire department, it seemed like we were more like janitors,” he added with a laugh. “We had to wash walls and we had to paint, anything that came up like that.”
Eventually in 1963, Richmond began integrating the department. Lewis admitted integration took some getting used to because the African American firefighters did not feel welcomed at first.
“It was quite an experience because we had guys who addressed you and they look at the back of your coat, you had your name on it, they’d call you by the name, (but they’d yell) ’hey boy!’ And you keep on working because your name wasn’t boy!” Lewis exclaimed.
William Willis, Jr. joined Engine Company Number 9 in 1955. He said he had no intentions of joining the fire department, but he desperately needed a job.
“And, when I came out of the service I wanted to get married and I couldn’t find a job with a college degree,” the 88-year-old said.
But, after working for the Richmond Fire Department, a few years ambition and discrimination drove him away.
“The reason I left, I came up number one on the lieutenant’s list, they did not promote me because they had nowhere to put me, we had a captain at that time, captain Hicks, and two lieutenants in company No. 9, they weren’t going to promote me to send me to another station,” Willis said.
“Looking toward the future, my future, I wanted to advance, I wanted to be successful make more money and do things with my family, so I left. I went with the federal government and I have not looked back since.”
The two men now say the fire department has made great gains over the years and they like what they see.
“After a while, their attitudes started to change,” Lewis said. “One hundred percent improvement because the fellows seem to get along well together and promotions and all of this have come into effect.”
Willis added, “I think the success of the African Americans in the fire department is directly based on the work that we did when we first went in.”