First black firefighters bonded for life

Jan. 18, 2014 @ 04:06 PM

There were 10 of them. Ten men who broke the color barrier in the Durham Fire Department. Three are still living, and of those, two have been ill. George Washington King, who turns 78 next month, is spry and easily takes the stairs. Thirty-five years of being a firefighter kept him in shape. King called me last week after my column urging those who are veterans of the civil rights movement to share their stories. He came to the newsroom and we talked for a few hours about his career at the DFD, one he said that had its rocky times but was very rewarding.

These are the other nine African-American men who made history in 1958: Walter Thomas, Elgin Johnson, Velton Thompson, Robert Medlyn, John O. Lyon, Nathaniel Thompson, Sylvester Hall, Thomas Harris and Linwood Howard. Durham was the second fire department to have an all-black station crew, after Winston-Salem, King said. Greensboro followed.
The 10 firemen greeted each other on their first morning of training.
“We talked about how significant it was, we sure did. We bonded. We knew we were going to be discriminated against,” King said.
Stories in the newspaper before they were hired quoted white firefighters using racial slurs and saying they didn’t want them there, he said.
But the firefighter in charge of every other firefighter was very fair, King said. DFD Chief Cosmo Cox never mistreated the black firefighters, King said.
“He looked after us, and I thought the world of him,” he said.
King was just 22 when he started, and planned to work there just a year or so. His wife, Daisy, was pregnant with their first child, and he needed to pay the hospital bill. Then he wanted to go to N.C. Central University or N.C. A&T University to study architectural engineering.
King grew up in Durham and graduated from Hillside High School, where he also met his wife. He went to the Tuskegee Institute on work scholarship, but only for a year. His mom didn’t want him to go at all.
“My mother thought I was too outspoken to go that far South. It’s known the further you go South, the worse it is for minorities, and it was,” King said.
He joined the Air Force and was fresh out in 1958 when he heard that the city was hiring for an all-black firefighter station, Station No. 4 at Fayetteville and Pekoe streets. It’s now the NCCU police station. Interestingly, the all-black fire station in Winston-Salem, and Greensboro were also No. 4s, King said, as was the one in Richmond, Va. After the black Durham firefighters were hired, a few from Richmond came down to see them. One Richmond firefighter was already a captain, King said. The new Durham firefighters made their own visit to another black fire station, in Greensboro.
“We exchanged thoughts and ideas and how to survive in this world,” King said. “We talked about ‘let’s stay together, let’s depend on one another.’”
Keep in mind King and the others started their jobs in 1958. The civil rights movement was underway, but there hadn’t been a big wave of sit-ins or the March on Washington yet. It was another decade before the Durham Fire Department was integrated – that is, stations with white and black firefighters working alongside each other.
King’s parents were very proud and happy for him. His father was one of the smartest people he ever knew, and his mom was smart, too. She told King to be the best at whatever he did, and King said in his mind he was indeed the best firefighter. It was long hours, but he fell in love with the job. He saved lives. He saved property. He trained other firefighters to save lives, too. King rose through the ranks to captain and driver and battalion chief and then assistant chief/fire marshal before his 1993 retirement. Daisy King died the following year. They have four sons, all of whom went to college, and four grandsons. One of his grandsons will graduate this May from N.C. A&T, the same one who attended a banquet where King was speaking, and as the history-making firefighter took the podium, shouted out: “That’s my granddaddy!”
I could fill this newspaper with more stories about King’s career, but maybe you should ask him sometime and hear it for yourself. He enjoys speaking to various groups. The bonds those firefighters made half a century ago lasted for life. They keep up with each other still. John O. Lyon and Velton Thompson are still living, and King was about to visit one of them in the hospital when we talked last week.
Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan may be reached at dvaughan@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6563. Follow her on Twitter @dawnbvaughan.