Members of the Atlanta City Council, Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta Fire Rescue Chief Kelvin J. Cochran, were joined by five-time World Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield to honor Atlanta’s first African-American Firefighters and Theodore “Tiger” Flowers, the man known as the first African-American world middleweight champion, during a 10:30 a.m. ceremony Monday at Fire Station 16, located at 1048 Joseph E. Boone Boulevard NW.
Council members Michael Julian Bond and Ivory Lee Young, Jr. were both on hand to support the measure.
In 2010, legislation introduced by Bond and unanimously adopted by the City Council and approved by Mayor Reed created a Commission to honor Atlanta’s First African-American Firefighters. The two metal historic markers honoring the firefighters and Tiger Flowers, on whose property Fire Station 16 was built in 1963, were unveiled today as part of the Commission’s recommendations.
“These brave individuals left an enormous legacy for generations to follow,” said Bond, chairman of the Council’s Public Safety Committee and the host of the event. “It is important that the city commemorate the public safety contributions of African-American Firefighters, who not only protected our city but did so while having to fight for the simple respect of their colleagues. This honor on this day was chosen because there is little written about these men and women but they will never be forgotten for the sacrifices they made.
“I was rescued by Atlanta firefighters as a small child from our family’s home when it caught fire, and I have always felt a special debt to these brave men and women who put their lives on the line every day,” he said “They repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way for our citizens.”
Flowers lived in a 20-room Italian stucco mansion at 1048 Joseph E. Boone Boulevard until his death in 1927. The house was demolished in 1963 to make way for the construction of Fire Station 16.
“The markers we are establishing here today are a lasting, and fitting, tribute to these pioneers, who most certainly endured hardships in breaking racial and gender barriers,” said Mayor Kasim Reed. “Let it serve as a lasting reminder of where we’ve been, and where we always want to be: Standing for justice, equality and doing the right thing.”
Sixteen young African-American recruits joined the Atlanta Fire Department on April 1,1963. Their hiring came after the late Mayor Ivan Allen responded to leadership in the Black community requesting that the department integrate. This historic action, spurred on by the activism of John Wesley Dobbs, was a first step towards the complete integration of the city’s workforce.
“This commemorative service marks the 50th anniversary of 16 courageous men who broke the color barrier to become Atlanta’s first African- American firefighters,” said Fire Chief Kelvin J. Cochran. “Their courage and sacrifice extended well beyond that required to fight fires, but the even greater challenge of integrating a predominately white male institution which existed for 100 years prior to their arrival. Because they overcame, the trail was blazed for other African- American men to follow.”
Cochran noted that the original 16 firefighters led the way for seven African American women to join the Atlanta Fire Department in 1977, breaking the gender barrier.
He noted that “Because they overcame, today there is truly a level playing field for hiring and promotions where members are not just by race, nor gender, but by the content of their character, commitment and competence. Truly, the valleys have been brought level, all the mountains have been made low, the crooked places made straight, and the rough places have been made smooth.”
Among the 16 recruits was William Hamer, who also served as Atlanta’s First African-American Fire Chief.
Their hiring was an event that resonated throughout the community, Hamer reminisced.
“Atlanta was moving forward in race relations. During the next decade and a half, the central concept was how to improve race relations in every major event throughout the city. This is what I have always loved about Atlanta,” he added.
Hamer retired from the department in 1989.
During Monday’s ceremony, the city also paid tribute to its first seven African-American female firefighters who joined the department in 1977; among those present today was retired Battalion Chief Liz Summers.
Summers was humbled by the ceremony but said it was perseverance and prayer that sustained her during her career.
“When I walked into the fire station I was told by my lieutenant that I wasn’t welcomed but in all fairness one Battalion Chief said that after having worked with me he was proud to have me and that he now realized I was going to do well,” Summers said. “For me and throughout my life there is a reason and a season for everything to take place.”