There were 10 men who started work that day in 1958, men whose names are part of Durham’s history, of North Carolina’s history and of American history. Names we should recall this Black History Month.
George Washington King. John O. Lyon. Velton Thompson. Walter Thomas. Elgin Johnson. Robert Medlyn. Nathaniel Thompson. Sylvester Hall. Thomas Harris. Linwood Howard. Those 10 men were Durham’s first African-American firefighters, and they all started their jobs at the same time, at the same station: No. 4 on Fayetteville Street.
In 2014, I interviewed firefighter George King and shared his story in this column. King told me there were two other men still living then -- Velton Thompson and John Lyon. Thompson has since passed away, but King and Lyon are still here. A few days ago I met Lyon, thanks to a niece of his who contacted me, and I’m here to tell you his story.
Lyon’s role as one of that first wave of African-American firefighters wasn’t his only part of history in the 1950s. He also broke ground in education.
Lyon grew up in Durham County off Scott King Road, and attended Merrick-Moore back when it was a high school. He was student body president. After graduating in 1954, he spent two years in the Army and then came home ready to pursue his higher education in the automotive field. He was the first African-American student at Gaston Technical Institute in Gastonia. It was 1956 in the Jim Crow South. The Durham Morning Herald headline read: “Durham Negro Enrolls in UNC Technical Unit” and included racist comments from white people. Another newspaper story he saved named Lyon as the 23rd African-American to enter the UNC system.
“It was real bad,” Lyon said about his experience there. He’d go into a classroom and the n-word would be written on the board, followed by “go home.” The instructor would come in and just erase the words and say nothing, Lyon said. But the principal of the nearby all-black high school knew about Lyon, and invited him over, offering him academic help if needed. Lyon did so well with a math tutor that he would go back to class and be the only student who knew how to correctly solve the problem.
“I learned a lot both ways, racial-wise and mechanic-wise,” Lyon said. “You had to remove all the negative thoughts and be determined to do what you had to do.”
He graduated and came back to Durham, where he got a job with the city, working at the filtration plant.
“They started hiring firemen and I got a letter from upper class blacks asking if I wanted to be a firefighter,” Lyon said. He did, and he was recommended to be one of those 10 men who broke the Durham Fire Department’s color barrier.
I’m not done sharing Lyon’s story with you, so I’ll fill you in on the rest of our interview next week. Do you want me to share your personal experience in the Civil Rights Movement -- in the workplace, the schools or the streets? Let me know.