Black Men Honored For Integrating Winston-Salem Fire Department

Black Men Honored For Integrating Winston-Salem Fire Department

4:36pm Mar 01, 2021
Willie J. Carter (seated) unveiled the new "First Eight Avenue" street sign in front of what was once Fire Station No. 4 in Winston-Salem, home to the first integrated fire department In North Carolina. DAVID FORD/WFDD
  • Willie J. Carter (seated at right) is one of two survivors from the first eight firemen to integrate the Winston-Salem Fire Department on 1 March 1951. DAVID FORD/WFDD

  • East Ward City Councilwoman Annette Scippio (red coat) looks up at the newly unveiled street sign in honor of the first eight black men to integrate the Winston-Salem Fire Department. DAVID FORD/WFDD

A ceremony Monday marked 70 years since eight African American firefighters reported for duty in Winston-Salem. It was the first fire department in North Carolina to integrate, and only the second city south of the Mason-Dixon Line to do so following the Jim Crow era.

After the hires, the sounds of sirens signaled not only alarm, but also conjured up feelings of pride within the Black community. City Councilwoman Annette Scippio grew up near the station and said these men were respected.

“There was a reverence about walking in front of the fire station,” says Scippio. “You didn’t play. You didn’t goof off. You knew there was something special right there because those men were special. They were doing something that nobody else could do. They were the only Black firemen.”

The men reported for duty on March 1, 1951. The majority were former military men, college-educated, and well-trained. Their assignment was to put out fires in Black neighborhoods. Elsewhere they were used as last resort backups only.

97-year-old retired firefighter Willie J. Carter attended the event. He’s one of two surviving members of the first eight. Carter says he doesn’t like to talk about those early days and the racism he encountered, but he adds that their work was eventually appreciated.

“I’ll tell you one thing about it,” he says. “When you put on them helmets and put one of them uniforms on and go into a house with smoke going, they don’t care what you look like. You better be able to put it out. That’s all. And that’s what we strived to do, and I think we did a little better than a whole lot of other people.”

On Monday,  Carter and his seven colleagues were honored with a street sign in front of the original fire station that reads "First Eight Avenue."

The naming ceremony comes in the wake of a federal lawsuit filed by five Black firefighters last month which alleges racism and discrimination in the fire department. The City of Winston-Salem and Fire Chief Trey Mayo are defendants in the case.

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