From the Baltimore Sun archives: My column from Jan. 5, 2001, after Herman Williams, Baltimore’s first Black fire chief, announced his retirement. The department on Sunday reported that Chief Williams had passed. Information was incomplete, but I believe he was close to 90 years old.
PUTTING OUT fires for a living might have been the heroic dream of millions of American boys, but not Herman Williams Jr. He was not born to the calling; he was not the son of a firefighter. He was black, and any firefighter he saw as a kid in Baltimore 50 or 60 years ago was white. Firefighters did not come to Williams’ elementary school for career day; there weren’t any class trips to the local firehouse to pet a Dalmatian or ring a bell. Herman Williams never wanted to be a firefighter. But in 1954, as the young father of two children – and soon four (including a certain television personality named Montel) – he didn’t have much choice. He needed a job.
“You’ve got to remember,” Williams says, inviting me to the hard-to-imagine because of our differences in age, race and experience. “A black man’s choices in Baltimore in those days were very limited. You’ve got to remember that.”
By 1954, Williams had already been spat upon as one of the first black drivers of buses and streetcars for the Baltimore Transit Co. He had heard white women on Park Heights Avenue say, “We’re not riding with you.” He’d been called “nigger” by riders of the No. 32 streetcar. The abuse was unbearable.
So, despite a decent salary ($5,500 a year), Williams gladly stepped off the buses and streetcars to try something else. He was in the vanguard of blacks becoming firefighters in Baltimore under the shepherding hand of the Urban League; he was in the second group of black men accepted into the fire academy.
And, once in uniform, he hated the job even more than he thought he would. The abuse and discrimination were constant. Williams was only allowed to work at a station where another black firefighter was assigned — so that they could sleep in a bed reserved for blacks. They could not use the same sink or toilet as the white firefighters.
When Williams sat down for a firehouse meal with the other guys on his shift, there was a physical separation at the table, and no one talked to him.
“And there were fights,” Williams says quietly, steering away from the details. “There were some terrible fights. …”
His crew, Engine Company 57 on Pennington Avenue in Curtis Bay, would get a call to a rowhouse fire, and the homeowner would complain about the black firefighter pulling hose toward the flames. “I don’t want that nigger in my house!” more than one of them cried.
On his way to work one morning, Williams came across a crowd on Patapsco Avenue, near Cherry Hill. A 10-year-old boy on a bicycle had been hit by a car. He was bloodied, helpless on the ground, an arm broken. The ambulance had not arrived. Williams was the first to kneel down to help. He whipped up a splint for the boy’s arm. And the boy yelled, “Get away from me, devil.”
Herman Williams did not want to be a firefighter.
“I hated it,” he says. “I wanted to go to college, but because I had a family and because of the shift work, I just couldn’t. All those years, I always thought that I was going to do something else. … It was a heavy burden to bear in those days, and it wasn’t just me. Every black firefighter experienced it.”
On his way to work one morning, Williams stopped at a liquor store and bought a six-pack of beer, then drove to Fort Armistead. He sat in his car and drank the beer, and he thought about his life. He was sick of the abuse, sick of the hatred and bigotry. He wanted something better, wanted to go to college. But on that day in the park at the old fort, he believed he would never get anywhere in life. The bus-driver job hadn’t worked out, and the firefighter job wasn’t working either. He thought about quitting. And then something happened.
“I thought about … “
His voice breaks, and Herman Williams takes off his glasses and holds his fingers against his eyes, and for a moment I feel bad for having asked him these questions, for taking him back to the worst time in his life.
But he’s a strong man. He finishes the story.
“I thought about my kids,” he says. “And I said no, I’m not going to let it break me. So I drove to work, and you had to be at work by 8 o’clock. There was a gong. It would gong 12 times at the start of the shift, and you had to be in the station house by the 12th gong, and that morning I got there on the 12th gong, but my company commander was there, sitting at the watch desk waiting for me, and he reported me late for work anyway, and that was the only time I was ever late, the only mark on my record.”
The shabby treatment did not break him.
He stayed in the department. He was promoted to pump operator in 1959, and to lieutenant in 1968. He went to the fire academy as an instructor. “And that was a good time,” he says. “I was teaching, and I loved teaching. Every guy who came into the department had to go through me, and I really felt I was accomplishing something.”
He rose through the department ranks, reaching battalion chief before heading to what he considered better opportunities in the city’s Department of Public Works. He came back to the Fire Department in 1992, when former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke made him the first black chief of a department that had been ruled by a succession of Irish-Americans.
“I never got bitter about all that,” he says, meaning the racial hatred of the 1950s. “That’s just the way things were in Baltimore in those days. … I made [white firefighters] respect me. You know, there’s a way to treat people that gets you respect. It was the way you held yourself, the way you carried yourself.”
It was the way Herman Williams picked himself up after a fight, the way he fought off the demons, the way he did his job and served his city.
Herman Williams gets respect because of the way he lived his life. It’s a man’s life. A strong man’s life.