Black firefighters speak on racist culture within WSFD

Thomas Penn (center) and other representatives with Omnibus, a local group of Black firefighters, during a press conference on Monday, July, 20.

Black firefighters speak on racist culture within WSFD
July 22
13:41 2020

More than a dozen current and former firefighters are calling out leaders within the Winston-Salem Fire Department for allowing a culture of racism and hatred to fester. During a press conference on Monday, July 20, members of Omnibus, a local organization of Black firefighters, laid out a history of racism that includes gorilla masks, nooses, and gobs of used chewing tobacco.

Thomas Penn, a representative for OMNIBUS and 27-year veteran of the WSFD, said several members within the ranks have racist thoughts and ideologies that have been blatantly ignored despite dozens of complaints by different individuals.

“We believe the department contains individuals who are intolerant of racism and bigotry. However, within our ranks there exists an age-old subculture that is not only tolerant of racism, but openly receptive,” Thomas said. “Chief Mayo has failed to hold these individuals accountable for their actions when there are clear regulations in place to address them; subsequently, he has fostered an environment where those who have been the recipient of hate-filled words and gestures are fearful.”

While addressing the media in the parking lot next to Fire Station 1 on Marshall Street, Thomas mentioned incidents where Black firefighters have found gorilla masks on their desks, watched white firefighters tie nooses during training sessions without reprimand, listened to countless racist conversations, and in one case where a Black firefighter found tobacco spit inside his boot.

Thomas also discussed a recent meeting where he says Chief Mayo said, “I’m tired of hearing about diversity,” when asked about diversity within the department.

“If you lack the intestinal fortitude to stand for equality and justice for all firemen under your command, then you lack the ability to effectively lead all those under your command,” Penn said.

Retired WSFD Captain Eddie Forrest said there needs to be an investigation into the fire department. Forrest, who served 30 years with the WSFD before retiring last year, said he had to deal with racist coworkers throughout his career, even on the day he got word he would be promoted to captain. “Once I got the news, I heard a white firefighter say he must’ve known somebody,” Forrest said. He said although he has retired, he felt it was his duty to stand with Omnibus.

Other organizations joining Omnibus during the press conference included Hate Out of Winston, Advance NC, Emancipate NC, Occupy Winston, and Progress NC. The coalition of organizations outlined a list of demands that have been sent to Chief Mayo and members of the Winston-Salem City Council. Here’s a list of the demands:

-Dismissal of Chief Mayo, as his performance record reveals an abundance of city and fire department violations and failure to adequately serve all members of the department and the residents of Winston-Salem.

-Create a fellowship program that targets and recruits all traditionally underserved communities to reflect the diversity of Winston-Salem. (We have individuals prepared to be on the recruitment committee).

-Enforcement of zero tolerance pertaining to the Code of Conduct policies, particularly the social media policy.

-Enforce the Code of Conduct policies as they are presented by the city and fire department.

-A thorough external investigation, chosen by OMNIBUS, of staff persons suspected of blatant, gross, and repeated violations of sexual harassment, social media, or code of conduct policies. The suspected individuals are: Chief William Mayo, Captain Chris Belcher, and Captain Kevin Shore.

-Bi-quarterly mandatory diversity training for personnel provided by an accredited source (chosen by OMNIBUS). This training is to begin in rookie school. This will be paid for “by the City of Winston-Salem.”

In the spring of 1951, the WSFD formed the first integrated fire company in the state when eight Black men joined Engine Company Number 4. Although they made history, it wasn’t easy. For years the Black firefighters had to deal with subpar equipment, impossible training routines, and constant racism from their white coworkers. Sadly, Penn says some things never change.

“In 1951 the path of becoming firefighters was pursued by courageous eight men who realized all too fervently that they would not be welcomed into the order that was commonly referred to as a brotherhood,” Penn continued. “These men faced a very real and credible threat to their lives and those of their family and we salute them. Sadly enough, we are not far removed from that time.”

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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