Durham’s John O. Lyon had already become a groundbreaker as a student before he became a groundbreaker as a firefighter. Both events occurred in the 1950s in the Jim Crow South, here in North Carolina.
Lyon was the first African-American student at Gaston Technical Institute in Gastonia. He faced blatant racism, persevered, graduated and came back to Durham.
In 1958, he became one of a group of 10 men who were Durham’s first African-American firefighters. They all started on the same day in October 1958. Just Lyon and George Washington King are still alive from that group.
The firefighters were all assigned to Station No. 4 at Fayetteville and Pekoe streets, now the N.C. Central University public safety building. While the City of Durham Fire Department itself was integrated with the new station, it was years before those African-American firefighters were assigned to other stations and worked alongside white firefighters. Lyon eventually went on to the No. 3 station on Driver Street, where he encountered more racism.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Firefighters slept in shifts, taking turn on the same mattresses. You’d take your linens off when your sleep shift was done, and the firefighter scheduled after you would put his sheets on the mattress. The firefighter after Lyon, a white man, didn’t want to sleep on the same mattress right after an African-American man, Lyon said.
“Oh, he was a redneck and would take the mattress out,” Lyon said, and keep it outside for awhile. So Lyon met with a deputy chief to tell him it was demoralizing.
“I thought for sure I’d get some help on this mattress deal. But it was obvious he was prejudiced also, and you don’t rock the boat when you know that,” Lyon said. His co-worker would also make big meals to share with all other firefighters working the shift, except for Lyon. All the white firefighters ate dinner together, never asking Lyon, the only black firefighter, to join them.
“It was like I wasn’t even there,” Lyon said. “It did so happen that when I made captain, he [the co-worker] was still a private and assigned to my station.”
Lyon said the other firefighter expected repercussions for his treatment of Lyon, but Lyon let it go and eventually they became friends.
Living in that era, “you just roll with the punches and hope things get better,” Lyon said.
His niece Carolyn Goss said that’s what you did to benefit future generations.
“Sometimes you have to suck it up, so someone can stand on your back. Just suck it up and keep moving,” she said.
Lyon said that one time he and a group of firefighters at the all-black No. 4 station were sitting outside, and their supervisor said they “look like a bunch of crows sitting out here.”
“Over half the people there had never worked with a black, and thought we couldn’t do anything. They said we’d just quit,” Lyon said. “Consequently, when they hired us, nobody quit.”
Lyon said that “things got really good later on.” He retired in 1988 after 30 years with the Durham Fire Department. Over the years he worked at four fire stations, and after he retired, spent some time as acting chief. Lyon said that throughout his time in groups with a large number of prejudiced white people, there was always what he called a “white sympathizer.” That person, both at Gaston Tech and at the DFD, would fill Lyon in on what was going on and give him information when he was being excluded.
Lyon broke another racial barrier later, a social one. He likes riding motorcycles -- he and his late wife Constantine had matching motorcycle vests. He was the first African-American to join the Gold Wing Road Riders motorcycle club. He still rides. The Lyons were married for 52 years, before Constantine’s death in 2015. Their children live in Texas -- daughter Johnita Darton is a physician and son Reginald Lyon is a businessman. John Lyon keeps his wife’s wedding portrait on a table in his living room, next to his daughter’s wedding portrait.
Lyon said that his favorite Durham fire station was that first station -- No. 4 on Fayetteville Street.
“Some people were so hospitable. We’d put a fire out, and they’d come by the next day with a cake,” he said. Lyon said they never expected to be thanked that way, as they had just been doing their job, fighting fires.
What Lyon and the nine other men who broke down the wall in 1958 did for Durham, and history, was so much more.