Wesley Williams Integrates Engine 55

Who is honored in the history of our public institutions?

On September 16th, 1927, Wesley Williams became the first Black FDNY firefighter to be promoted to the rank of lieutenant. His appointment serves as a monumental achievement in Black civil service in New York City, and a story of perseverance in the face of interpersonal and structural racism.

Williams entered FDNY service at Engine Company 55 on Broome Street in 1919, when he desegrated the Company and became the third Black firefighter in the FDNY. Born in Harlem in 1897, Williams was the grandson of a self-emancipated migrant from Virginia, and the son of the Chief of the Red Caps at Grand Central Station, and his entrance to Engine 55 began with a childhood goal to work in civil service. In 1915, Wesley Williams started his career as a member of the U.S. Postal Service, yet he quickly found himself unfulfilled and seeking greater accomplishments.

Wesley (back, far right) poses with two other adults and a child, all dressed in formal suits and overcoats
Williams set his sights on entering the FDNY, but he would have to pass a written and physical exam to do so. He studied independently for the written exam–Tammany Hall controlled the preparatory classes for the exam and prohibited African Americans from signing up for the course. Williams not only placed 13th on the written exam, but became the second man in FDNY history to earn a perfect score on the physical exam. His scores needed to be accompanied by three letters of recommendation, which he secured from three prominent New Yorkers with the help of his father’s position in the Red Caps. Having surmounted the hurdles placed in his way, he officially entered FDNY service at Engine 55, on Broome and Mott Street, in 1919.

Wesley (far right) stands outside with three other firemen in white t-shirts with their sleeves rolled up, leaning against the side of Fire Engine 55
The day of his placement, every firefighter at the company asked to be transferred. Transfers denied, his white ethnic coworkers, the Company leadership included, participated in psychological and physical violence towards Williams. The lieutenant told Williams that the Company would only speak to him if he bunked down in the cellar; Williams refused, and suffered for his bravery. The white firefighters, of Irish and Italian heritage, destroyed his eating utensils after he used them, challenged him to physical fights, and locked him in burning buildings. Historian David Goldberg notes that the white firefighters threatened Williams because of the challenge he represented to their beliefs about racial identity, white supremacy, and segregation. Far from unusual, racial violence permeated Northern cities at a time when messages of inferiority about Black people circulated frequently. The tentacles of white supremacy wrapped themselves around many white ethnic New Yorkers, creating perceived competition and real antagonism between groups that otherwise should have been allied against the prejudice and barriers they experienced.

Williams requested a transfer to Harlem within a year of arriving at Engine 55. Denied by FDNY leadership, he committed himself to rising in the ranks of the Company. Studying for the FDNY promotional exam, he also recruited the Black press to report on his efforts, bringing pressure and the public eye to the FDNY and their decisions. Successfully appointed lieutenant in 1927, Williams serves in this role at Engine 55 until 1952, when he retired due to an injury.

Williams’ legacy lives on in the Vulcan Society, an organization for Black firefighters and EMTs. Williams helped found the organization, and former Society President Regina Wilson reflected on the national importance of Williams’ legacy: “Through the advocacy of the Vulcan Society…other civil service organizations came together to fight for equality of African American civil service workers across the country.”

In Harlem, Williams’ birthplace, he is recognized by a YMCA branch name, a section of 135th Street, and at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture. At Engine Company 55, there are, as of yet, no markers to his formative legacy at the Company and the FDNY.

Exterior of Engine Company 55, a narrow 3-story red brick firehouse. An American flag hangs above a bright red garage door with a placard that reads