Alex Jackson has certainly earned kudos from all of us for having reached the top rung of the ladder of the Minneapolis Fire Department, being sworn in as
Minneapolis’ first Black fire chief. His rise to the top represents a long and daunting struggle for racial equality in that department of city government.
Over the years, that department has not been without victims and casualties in that struggle. Its history cites many well-qualified Americans of African American heritage with dreams of service in the capacity of firemen having their dreams shattered. I cite here just one such case that exemplifies those frustrations.
The year was 1950, and this young man, having just returned from serving his country in a combat infantry unit, felt challenged by the intrigue of becoming a fireman.
What he didn’t know was that, at the time, there was an unwritten law in the department that restricted membership to White males. That lesson was to be learned the hard way.
When it came to taking the qualifying test and exams, he was undaunted by the fact that of the nearly 200 applicants, he was the only person of color. He passed it off as circumstantial.
He did become conscious of how the exams were structured. They were divided into three different categories — physical, written, and oral interview. Each was given equal status, and candidates had to pass each with a score of 75 percent or better to qualify.
Also, during the course of the exams, only assigned numbers identified candidates. However, during the oral interview, candidates and graders met face to face.
The African American candidate had little trouble passing the two measurable sections. Having been a college graduate, he considered the written test “sophomoric” and the physical test “a piece of cake” compared with his combat army training. As a matter of fact, he was told that he had broken the existing record time for one portion of the physical — running 100 yards with a man on his back.
Then came the oral interview, where he was face-to-face with the judges. They consisted of three elderly White men who identified themselves as retired chiefs.
The applicant was braced and prepared to answer some grueling questions regarding his suitability and fitness to becoming a fireman; but to his utter surprise, only three questions were asked. They were: Why do you want to be a fireman? Does your wife approve of your becoming a fireman? And, why do you want to leave your present job to become a fireman?
On the basis of answers to those three questions, the applicant was given a grade of 73.4, just below the threshold mark of 75. Thus was he eliminated from further consideration.
Things only went downhill from there. The applicant, filled with anger and frustration, was eventually able to identify and seek out one of the judging ex-fire chiefs. Informally, he sought an explanation from him of how and why his panel could arrive at such a precise score from answers to three such general questions.
Finally, the ex-chief made his heartfelt admission: “I’ve been a fireman for more than 30 years, and there is something very special and unique about the relationship of firemen. They live together, eat together, and sleep together, just like family members. I just don’t believe mixing the races works in this case.”
This was an outright admission of discrimination, but there was no operating civil rights department — city or state — at the time. However, the incident did motivate the young fireman candidate to become a local civil rights activist.
About 10 years later, when a successful federal discrimination lawsuit was filed against the Minneapolis Fire Department and the City, the testimony of this candidate was key evidence.
Regarding the above, the first question that pops up is the source of such detailed knowledge of an incident from the 1950s. Well, it comes firsthand — I was that candidate!
So, good luck, Alex Jackson! You are as much of an inspiration to those kids who might aspire to become a fireman as Barack Obama is to the rest of us.
Matthew Little welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.