Honorary street sign unveiled recognizing Black men who integrated the local fire department

The honorary street sign recognizing the eight Black firefighters who integrated the Winston-Salem Fire Department is located in the heart of East Winston.

Honorary street sign unveiled recognizing Black men who  integrated the local fire department
March 03
13:32 2021

On March 1, 1951, eight Black men, Raphael Black, Willie Carter, Lester Ervin, John “Hank” Ford, Robert Greet, John Meredith, Geroge Penn and John “Roi” Thomas, made history when they became the first all-Black firefighter engine company in the state. To mark the 70th anniversary of that historic day, earlier this week city officials and members of Winston-Salem Fire Department (WSPD) unveiled an honorary street sign at the corner of East Third Street and Dunleith Avenue, near the location of the original Fire Station No. 4, where the men known as the “First Eight” worked. 

Before unveiling the street sign, Chief Trey Mayo said even in the face of opposition, the First Eight prevailed. He said, “these men had to work through the social convictions of the day which were compounded by the nature of a career fire departments staffing system that requires firefighters to live together.” 

According to Mayo, the chief at the time tried to “stonewall” the Black firefighters as much as he could and during training they were given harder tasks as an attempt to get them to quit. But they didn’t. All eight pushed through and passed with flying colors. “Not only were they sharp on practical scenarios … the class average on the written exams when they graduated from fire academy was 93,” Mayo continued. 

“These eight men tore down the walls of segregation and opened the door that hundreds of minorities have walked through on their way to successful fire service carriers.”

City Councilmember Annette Scippio, who represents the East Ward where the honorary street sign is located, said she remembers taking field trips to Fire Station No. 4 as a little girl at 14th Street School. She said seeing Black men on a fire truck for the first time was an inspiration for all the children in the neighborhood.

“We knew they were special,” Scippio said. “These were men who had excellence as their mantra. Whenever that fire truck came out that door and we could hear it, everyone started running towards the fire truck … It was just so magnificent to see these men.”

Mayor Pro Tempore Denise “DD” Adams, who also grew up in the neighborhood, thanked the firefighters and their families for making the sacrifice to serve. 

“On behalf of the mayor, the Winston-Salem City Council, the councilwoman of the ward, and others, we want to thank you all for your service. We want to thank your families and God for blessing you with the fortitude you had to be a part of the Winston-Salem Fire Department, because you could’ve went and done something else,” Adams said. “We thank you this day and we’re honored and blessed to be able have this initiative today and marking this auspicious occasion. 

Ninety-seven-year-old Willie Carter, who is one of two of the First Eight still alive, attended the unveiling ceremony on Monday morning. After Chef Mayo and others removed the tarp covering the sign, Carter took a few moments to admire the sign and reflect on all his hard work as a firefighter.

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Tevin Stinson

Tevin Stinson

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