Sixteen retired Black St. Paul firefighters were honored September 17.
Byron Brown, Steve Carlisle, Tony Carter, John Foster, James Fowler, Dwayne Gibbs, Barry Harrison, Arthur C. Hill, Nathaniel Khaliq, Jim Logan, Paul Lowry, Robert Mims, Ora Peoples, Thurman Smith, Toni Terry and Phil Webb are “trailblazers,” noted Sheletta Brundidge, who served as mistress of ceremonies for the first-ever Firefighter Appreciation Dinner for retired St. Paul Black firefighters at St. Paul College.
The dinner was sponsored by Firefighters United, the city’s Black firefighters association. “These men and one woman really had a vision to help people who came after them,” Brundidge told the audience.
Fowler, a 25-year veteran, pointed out that he was among “the eight,” the large group of St. Paul Black firefighters in the mid-1970s: – Fowler, Peoples, Brown, Harrison, Mims, Logan, Gary Allen and Roger Neal. According to Fowler, the title came from an article in the St. Paul Recorder.
“To be honored by your peers, to be honored by those who came after you, it gives us an affirmation that what we wound up doing here did help,” Foster continued.
“Hopefully we crashed some of the myths. We’ve changed some ideas and some opinions, and fostered some good relationships with certain people in the department, so that these guys won’t have to go through some of the stuff we went through.
“What we went through was a struggle,” Foster said. “It was a struggle for dignity, respect and appreciation. That was something that was hard-earned.”
“I know it hasn’t always been easy” for the city’s Black firefighters, admitted St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, whether they are retired or currently on duty.
“The challenges were unique to your position, to your situation being an African American in the fire department in the City of St. Paul.”
Each retiree’s achievements were individually recognized as they received a plaque from Firefighters United President Gerone Hamilton and St. Paul Fire Chief Timothy Butler, as well as several standing ovations from the audience throughout the evening.
“They used the term ‘trailblazer,’ but we were trying to make it better,” said Fowler. “We did some things along the way that hurt us, but I hope that it helped to make it better for everybody.”
“I felt very honored and humbled,” said Terry, the lone female retiree. She was St. Paul’s first Black female firefighter, leaving in 2007 after 12 years to attend college, which she hopes to finish in December.
“The group of men here were the first ones I met when I came on in 1995,” Terry said, “and they all took me under their wings. They mentored me, cared for me, and treated me as a little sister.”
Being the only Black female “was very difficult, but I don’t regret anything.
It was a very good career, and I miss it,” she admits. “I made the decision to pursue my bachelor degree and see what else could unfold in my life.”
Lowry, who served for 28 years, said he never expected anything like last week’s public show of appreciation for him and his fellow Black firefighters.
“I think it speaks bold that the St. Paul Fire Department today would recognize the contributions that we made,” said Foster, a 27-year veteran who now lives in Texas.
“I’m just honored to be here with my father, my son and my grandsons so they can be here and share this time with me, and experience with the other firefighters,” said retiree Tony Carter, a 30-year veteran firefighter (1975-2005).
It was purely coincidental that last week’s dinner came exactly one week after the commissioning of the fire department’s new headquarters, the William and Alfred Godette Memorial Building, said Hamilton. “It took a lot of courage for them to name the building [after the two Black firefighters]. It just gives everyone – White, Black, Hispanic, man, woman – a new sense of pride of being on the St. Paul Fire Department,” noted Hamilton, who honored both Butler and Coleman with his association’s first “Courage Award.”
“From William and Alfred Godette, and to every Black firefighter in between, I appreciate your contributions to this department,” said Butler.
Coleman later told the MSR, “When you look at the story of the Godettes and what they went through, they were community members and pioneers, and they fought against the tide. This is a story that should inspire every child of every race about how to beat the odds and succeed. I thought it would be a lost opportunity to simply call [the headquarters] an administration building.”
Hamilton also praised firefighter Al Boney, who initially discovered the Godettes a couple of years ago. Boney “realized that I walked back into time” when he first discovered a photo of William Godette, he explained during a video history presentation. Boney also was honored with the “Spirit Award,” aptly named after the two Godette brothers.
Steve McDowell, a 27-year veteran White firefighter who attended last week’s appreciation dinner, said, “What I heard tonight, I didn’t know a lot of this history.”
Asked if she and the others Black retirees see the St. Paul Fire Department moving forward toward inclusion, Terry said, “The biggest thing I’ve seen changed is the diversity initiative and recruiting the City has implemented over the last couple of years.”
“It all started back with the whole ‘monkey in the noose’ thing that came out [at a city garage in the summer of 2008],” said current firefighter Will Jones.
“Ever since then, good things have happened [for Black firefighters].”
Current firefighter Floyd Jones, an 18-year veteran, noted that he has seen an attitude change among the rank and file towards himself and other Black firefighters. “There’s not that bickering that once was when I first came on.
We’re all on common ground now, working toward a common goal.”
“I think things are much better from the standpoint that now there’s a lot more respect and appreciation for us as Black firefighters than before,” said Fowler. However, Foster added that he would like to see more Black firefighters and officers: “We certainly need that, and I think that it would be good thing and certainly would speak volumes.”
McDowell said he believes that the dinner, along with the headquarters’ new name, has helped create “a revitalized department where they want to include everyone [and be] all inclusive to people of all colors.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.