North Carolina Firefighters Celebrated for Pioneering Racial Integration

Chick Carter was urged by a friend to come along one day and stand in the long line of people applying to be the first black firefighters in Winston-Salem (NC), reports the Winston-Salem Journal.

Carter found himself a member of an eight-man recruiting class that turned into the first racially integrated fire company.

Carter and the other three living members of Engine Four were honored Friday in a black history program taking place at the Goodwill Industries headquarters.

It wasn't easy being a black firefighter back in the 1950s. Chief M.G. Brown was against having the black firefighters in the department, Carter said, and tried to make life hard.

"When we had our training, he didn't even give us fire gear to train in," Carter said. "We were training in civilian clothes." Carter said black firefighters got "the most distasteful assignments and weren't rotated out for rest breaks, as the other men were, when they were on the scene of a big fire.

But don't get the impression that the retired firefighters are nursing grudges. They tell their tales like a veteran tells war stories.

"They sent us on the worst fires," Thomas said. "They did it to discourage us, but we just laughed and went on."

Quietly, almost secretly, the black and white firefighters ended the petty segregation at the Engine Four firehouse.

Engine Four consisted of the eight black firefighters and seven white officers who had volunteered for duty there.

At first the segregation was what you'd expect in the 1950s in the South: Separate water fountains, bathrooms, meals and so on.

Thomas said one white officer decided it didn't make sense. Why couldn't they all just use the same facilities and eat together, since they were all there at the firehouse? So that's what they did, long before the era of sit-ins and demonstrations. The chief didn't like it, Thomas said, but ended up having to tolerate it.

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