As the nation waits for the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first Black president, the Seattle Black Fire Fighter's Association is celebrating the year the color barrier was broken at the Seattle Fire Department.
On Jan. 17, the SPFFA will honor the 40th anniversary of the local Black Firefighters Association chapter and the 50th anniversary of Claude Harris' first day on the job.
"He showed great strength and fortitude to put up with the attitude of those times," said Reginald Ball, Northwest region director for the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters. "The type of resolve he showed to weather the storm was a great example of personal strength."
Harris was hired in 1959 and had a long career with the Seattle Fire Department. He eventually became fire chief, a position in which he served for over 12 years from 1985-1997.
"He paved the way where there wasn't a way," said Roberto Jourdan, president of the SBFFA. "It had to start somewhere and someone had to open the door from the inside."
Harris is being recognized as a major figure that has helped to change the fire department at a time when community members still fought segregation laws in schools and most public places.
"It was a big deal, because city jobs held a lot of prestige," said Ball. "It wasn't that people weren't qualified, the system wouldn't let them in."
Harris was able to rise through the ranks of the department. Over his career, he became the first Black firefighter to obtain the rank of fire lieutenant, fire captain, fire battalion chief, deputy fire chief and eventually fire chief.
However, he did not know at the time that his hiring was the only the beginning of a struggle for equality. Before becoming battalion chief in 1980, he had to file a lawsuit.
"They had to go to court and fight it all the way," said Ball. "He scored the highest on the test, but then they changed the rules."
Harris won this legal action and in press release put out by the SPFAA, they credit this case as having caused "a significant increase in women and minority hiring in Seattle as well as other fire departments around the nation."
"The culture of the fire-fighter has always been a White, male dominated profession," said Jourdan. "There is still a perpetual, built-in racism."
The Seattle Fire Department current employs fewer than 100 Black firefighters, out of a total force of 1,000 -- around 8 percent of the total force.
"This is because a lot of the major fire departments are still under federal affirmative action guidelines," said Jourdan. "But there is not a lot of effort to go over that guideline."
Jourdan said that there is no incentive for fire departments to hire more women and minorities. He said hat most major fire departments are all more or less around the 10 percent mark for hiring women and minorities.
He also said that initiatives such as I-200, which repealed racial quotas, only worked against providing more opportunities for minorities and women in the police department.
In addition to celebrating Harris' hiring, the event is also celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Seattle Chapter. The SBFFA was formed in 1968 as an organization, which helps and promotes Blacks locally in fire departments.
"It is a haven for study, unity, protection and civil rights," said Ball.
Jourdan said that the Seattle Fire Department and other major fire departments only hire at certain times of year, but the SBFFA recruits all year round.
The organization also helps to tutor potential firefighters as well as assist with their applications. Jourdan said that the organization helps people of all ages, from veteran fire fighters to young adults with a growing interest in the occupation.
The celebration will be held at the Northwest African American Museum Jan. 17 at 6 p.m. The event will feature former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer as a guest speaker. Tickets are available to the general public for $50 and because of limited space, the SBFFA asks you to RSVP by email ([email protected]) or by calling Reginald Ball at 206-240-4381.