Durham firefighter who helped integrate department dies
Velton Thompson, one of the first black firefighters hired by the city of Durham, died Monday after a long illness. He was 81.
Mr. Thompson was one of 10 blacks hired as a group who integrated the Fire Department after a history of exclusion and racial segregation.
At the start, they were confined to the fire station on Fayetteville Street and not allowed to answer calls outside that predominantly black district. But as time passed, those restrictions were lifted, and the department became fully integrated.
When Mr. Thompson retired after 35 years as a firefighter, co-workers and others showered him with hugs and kisses, his wife, 79-year-old Edna Thompson, said Wednesday.
“He liked his job,” she said. “It was risky, and he got hurt one time, but he still liked it.”
Mrs. Thompson said the injury happened when her husband responded to a fire at Lincoln Hospital and suffered a steam burn to his ankle.
She recalled a time in the 1960s during the Vietnam War era when firefighters and police were called to stand by during a student rally. They had orders to spray students with fire hoses if things got out of hand, but many firefighters, including Mr. Thompson, didn’t plan to comply.
“The [fire] chief told them that if the kids got out of order to spray them,” she said. “And they said: ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ Many of them were students from [N.C.] Central University. But they never had to, because it was an orderly rally.”
Edna Thompson said the first years of her husband’s job were especially hard, because blacks had to do “extra work” during training that whites weren’t required to do.
“It was difficult, but they did it,” she said. “They made a pact, and decided they would follow through with everything they were asked to do. And they did it in an orderly way.”
Mrs. Thompson said “it was hard for all the black firefighters at that time – real hard, because there was segregation and people didn’t really understand what was going on. People were just going by their feeling of what they were taught [about segregation].”
Later, she said, things began to change.
“They started loving each other,” she said of white and black firefighters. “And when Velton retired, they had a dinner, and we got hugs from everybody – black and white. They realized that people are people, regardless of their color.”
Of the 10 black firefighters, only two are alive today – John Lyon and George King.
Mr. King, now 79, said he met Mr. Thompson when the two were students at Hillside High School. They served together in the Durham Fire Department for 35 years.
“Oh, man, he was a wonderful person,” King said Wednesday. “He had much wisdom. And he was contented; he was the most contented person I ever met.”
Mr. King said Mr. Thompson loved to encourage people, to bring out the best in them.
“He would push you and say: ‘You can do it, you can do it’,” Mr. King said. “He was a great person to be around.”
During those first years as a group, the black firefighters became as close as brothers, he said.
“We depended on one another,” Mr. King said. “We were like a family.”
He said firefighters worked 24 hours every other day, with a day off every 13 days. That kept the men away from their families for long hours, but it drew them together.
Mr. King said his friendship with Mr. Thompson continued after retirement, and he visited him at a nursing home shortly before he died.
“We had a bond that was unbreakable,” Mr. King said. “I’m going to miss him.”
Visitation will be from 11 a.m. to noon Monday at Mount Vernon Baptist Church, 1007 S. Roxboro St. in Durham. Funeral services follow immediately at the church.