Time for celebration: Black firefighter candidates graduate
By Fran Spielman | City Hall Reporter
Seventeen years is a long time to wait to realize a dream, but it was worth it for Jerry Jones III.
On Thursday, Jones strode across the grand ballroom stage at Navy Pier, shook hands with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other dignitaries and proudly joined the family of Chicago firefighters that includes Jones’ father, a retired assistant commissioner who attended the graduation in his old uniform.
Jones, 40, is one of 98 new firefighters, 86 of whom had been waiting for the chance to join the Chicago Fire Department since 1995. They are among nearly 6,000 African-Americans bypassed by the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 firefighters entrance exam.
The oldest man was 56. The oldest woman was 54. The candidates admit there was a lot of huffing and puffing as they made it through the grueling fire academy training.
“It was challenging at times, but everything happens for a reason. I just took it to mean this is my time and that time was probably not the best time for me to come” on the job, said Jones, who was working as a cement finisher when the legal odyssey ended.
“I did four years in the Marine Corps. I got out in 1995 to take the test. I didn’t re-up because of the test. But, I’m probably more ready now than I was back then. Psychologically, I understand it’s more than a good idea because your dad did it. And I hold the sense of duty a little bit more dear than the benefits.”
Jones said he never once thought about taking a cash settlement as high as $11,000 over the chance to work for the Fire Department.
“I have a son behind me who’s gonna be old enough to test in a couple of years, so I might want to show him the way. And I get joy out of helping other people,” he said.
Arguing that the Chicago Fire Department should be “as diverse as the city it defends,” Emanuel relished the opportunity to close the book on an injustice, he said, never should have taken 17 years to correct.
When results of the ’95 exam were disappointing for minorities, the city established a cut-off score of 89 and hired randomly from the top 1,800 “well-qualified” candidates.
In 2005, a federal judge ruled that had the effect of perpetuating the predominantly white status quo because 78 percent of those “well-qualified” candidates were white.
Instead of accepting the ruling, hiring the 111 bypassed black candidates and compensating thousands of others, former Mayor Richard M. Daley fought the lawsuit on a technicality.
The city gave up the fight, only after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed in 2010 that African-American candidates did not wait too long before filing their lawsuit.
“The arc of history always bends towards justice,” Emanuel told the graduates. “Today is what Dr. [Martin Luther] King meant when he said you would not be judged by the color of your skin but by the content of your character.”
The Chicago Sun-Times reported last week it will cost Chicago taxpayers $78.4 million to settle the case — twice as much as anticipated — and that Chicago will borrow the money, compounding the cost.
But, Thursday was not about the money. It was about dreams.
“When you deal with something painful from the past, justice is served by being upfront about it. We are a stronger city for having dealt with it,” the mayor said.
“Dreams are deferred but never defeated. After two decades we are correcting that mistake, and it is my hope that we never, ever make that mistake again. The Chicago Fire Department should be as diverse as the city it defends.”
The mayor advised the middle-aged firefighters that they bear a special responsibility for getting a long-delayed chance that thousands of others never got.
“This is a symbolic class. You carry that burden Do not let that go to waste,” he said.
No chance of that fo rookie firefighter Sherman Taylor, who waited for justice while working as a civilian lock-up employee at the Chicago Police Department.
“It was very, very hard, mainly because I hadn’t been to school in so long and I went from being in authority to having [to answer to authority] like I was when I was 18 years old,” said Taylor, 43.
“It wasn’t easy. Body don’t heal as fast. But, I feel like it was my calling. All we wanted was a chance — and we got it. Seventeen years later, but we did it.”
Fellow graduate Andre Williams, 46, who worked as a painter while waiting, added, “I’ve always wanted to be a firefighter since I was a little kid. Every little boy wants to be a firefighter. Some don’t give it up. So, this is a dream come true.”
The Rev. Dr. Zenobia Brooks was bursting with pride as she watched her 44-year-old son, Frank Edward Harris, shake the mayor’s hand.
“He stands on the shoulders of his ancestors, who have been discriminated against for many, many generations. So, this was so important to him. … He has two African-American sons. This means, if he can achieve it, they can achieve it,” she said.