Submitted by Cincinnati African-American Firefighters Association

From left, Firefighters Bennie Shepard, an unknown fire cadet, and Firefighter Reed are shown at a fire in the neighborhood of Carthage. Photo provided.

The Cincinnati Fire Department (CFD) was established in 1853. However, unfortunately the first African American was not employed by the CFD until 1955.  The first Black firefighter on the CFD is known as a trailblazer and a source of great pride with-in the Black firefighter ranks.  Twenty-two-year-old Herbert Bane, of Avondale, entered the CFD in 1955.  He was later joined by two other Black firefighters, who entered the force in 1956 (Charles Fowler) and 1962 (Oliver McGee) respectively.   

Bane later became a firefighter in the federal service, Charles Fowler resigned under duress from the CFD, and McGee left the department in 1970, after eight years of dedicated service.  Charles Fowler’s resignation sparked calls for an investigation of racial discrimination in the CFD by local officials.  Councilmen Myron B. Bush said that in one case, a Black fireman left his job because people wouldn’t speak to him.  “He was becoming a nervous person and couldn’t take it any more,” said Bush.   

The Cincinnati Fire Department Recruit Class of September 1968, showing the sole Black recruits Bennie Shepard and Richard Childs Sr. Photo provided

With the passage of the landmark United States Civil Rights Act of 1964, eradication of discrimination now began in earnest.  Also, the riots of 1968 triggered a new sense of urgency to redress the issue of Civil Rights for African Americans throughout the nation.   Local officials worked in earnest to recruit Blacks to join the ranks of the CFD.  City officials recruited Blacks in every department by sending out memos, canvassing for interested Blacks to become fire recruit candidates. They also advertised in the Black media.  To better ensure success on the written portion of the fire recruit exam, city officials also conducted study sessions for Black recruits at City Hall.  As a result of the City’s efforts, three Blacks were hired in the CFD in September of 1968.  These firefighters were Bennie Shepard, Richard Childs and Bernard Blakey.  The city and the fire department would only hire another three Black firefighters from 1969 and 1972.      

Incidentally, the federal government began a program that was called Model Cities that would also assist the city in its effort to racially integrate the CFD.  The Fire Cadet Model Cities Program was a federal government program, in collaboration with the City of Cincinnati, specially aimed at hiring more Blacks in the CFD.  The program began in March of 1972 with 16 Black cadets and four White cadets.  All 20 of the cadets graduated from the cadet program and were hired as full-fledged firefighters in the department.   

However, the Model Cities Program was expensive and was met with great resistance from the rank and file of the CFD.  Consequently, the program would only last for one cycle due to a lack of political resolve.       

Nevertheless, the lawsuit filed by Tilford and Youngblood would be the catalyze that would finally integrate the CFD.  Tilford Youngblood, of Avondale,  and Ralph Nichols, of Fairmount, two former Black recruit applicants, file a suit, with the Legal Aid Society of Cincinnati as their advocate, in the United States District Court.  More importantly, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission partnered with Youngblood, Nichols and Legal Aid in the lawsuit.   

Bennie Shepard was the sole Black recruiter for Cincinnati Fire Department in July 1969. Photo provided

The Youngblood and Nichols suit was based on several factors.  The suit alleged that the CFD had engaged in practices and patterns of racial discrimination.  Further, the suit stated that the CFD had discriminated in recruiting, testing, selecting and hiring Black applicants for the position of fire recruit.   

Although the Tilford Youngblood lawsuit never went to trail, it was the basis for which the City of Cincinnati entered into a Consent Decree.  The Consent Decree was signed on May 7, 1974.  At that time, there were 14 African Americans on the CFD.  The Consent Decree required that each recruit class be made up of 40% African Americans until the number of Black firefighters in the department was at least 18%.  The fire department was well on its way to racially integrating the department.     

However, Blacks were slow to gain acceptance from the White firefighters, partly because of resentment for the Consent Decree, as well as prejudice, bigotry and ignorance. Nevertheless, as more African Americans joined the ranks of the CFD, they came together to support each other by establishing an advocacy group to redress their issues.   

 History Part II will talk about the birth of CAFA.

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