2021 Find of the Month Archive

Integrating the Fire Department

Seattle firefighters with truck

In 1954, Willie Richey applied to become the first Black firefighter in the Seattle Fire Department. He took the physical and mental examinations and passed both with high scores. His final hurdle to be hired was an oral interview, but the examiners voted 2-1 not to qualify him for employment. He appealed this decision to the Civil Service Commission (CSC) but the appeal was denied.

Mayor Pomeroy had previously appointed a Mayor’s Committee on Minority Employment to look into current City employment statistics and hiring practices, and to make recommendations for bringing more non-white citizens into the municipal workforce. The committee looked into the Richey case and felt that his perceived failure in the oral interview "might be due to discrimination," and pointed out that his case "arose in the context of a department which had never employed a non-white." They met with the CSC and asked that Richey's case be reconsidered with that background in mind, but the CSC denied the request.

Philip Burton of Seattle's NAACP, acting as attorney for Richey, wrote to the CSC to again request a reconsideration, pointing out that despite state, municipal, and departmental policies against discrimination, "there is not now, nor has there ever been a Negro fireman in the City of Seattle." He contrasted this with other City departments, as well as with the fire departments of other cities, and said that the non-integrated condition of the department was important context for Richey’s case. Burton also noted that while the two interviewers who rated Richey unfavorably thought he talked too much, he may have been overcompensating for what he believed was an inherent disadvantage based on his skin color, and that he was likely attempting to prove himself to a perhaps skeptical audience. Burton requested a rehearing by the CSC, emphasizing Richey's high scores on the examinations and pointing out that "the first Negro to be hired is always the most difficult case."

The CSC again denied the request, stating that "no new facts or evidence were presented" to justify reopening the case. This led the Seattle branch of the NAACP to charge the CSC with "a serious lack of understanding and sensitivity concerning the problem of Negro employment in municipal jobs... They have succeeded in perpetuating a 'white-only' Fire Department, and discouraging other Negro applicants from even trying to get employment."

The Mayor's Committee felt the episode showed that the CSC "has displayed a lack of understanding of the problems confronting non-whites who seek employment in the Fire Department, thus perpetuating a racially exclusive condition." It found that while the Fire Chief said he desired a racially integrated workforce, the department "has not assumed affirmative responsibility" to achieve that goal. It also pointed out that cases like Richey’s contributed to a widespread belief that "qualified non-whites will not be hired as firemen" and therefore discouraged others to apply.

It was not until 1959 that the department hired Claude Harris as its first Black firefighter. Harris became Fire Chief in 1985 and served in that role until 1997.

Defying Prohibition

Prohibition police dry squad

Bootlegging and illegal drinking thrived in Seattle during Prohibition, at times through the collusion of elected officials and police. One citizen, Charles L. Maxfield, wrote to the City Council in early 1925 regarding "the intolerable situation with regard to bootlegging, graft and holdups in our city and the relation of the Mayor therto [sic]":

Two days ago I was in a business house in Western Avenue. The proprietor told me the following story. First, that the Ideal Billard [sic] Hall on Western Avenue is a regular bootlegging establishment and that booze is sold there practically as free as in the days of the saloon. Second, that this matter has been reported to the police many times but without any adequate action. Third, that the policemen on the beat and the sargent [sic] from the station go into this place frequently and must know what is going on. Fourth, he also stated that there was little use of reporting it to the policemen because no action would be taken.

It is my judgment that this is fairly indicative of the condition in our city today. It is my judgment that many of the policemen who would gladly do their duty do not do so because they know that when it is carried higher up the same will not be appreciated and that it will do no good. We must have a mayor who does not use his office for personal aggrandizement; who will not promote graft; who will not encourage and protect bootlegging; who will suppress highway robbery, gambling and dens of vice. We must have a mayor who believes in the enforcement of laws in reality and not in merely talking about them. There should be moral fibre in the whole executive department of our city administration.

You who are in the Council of our city must know where the trouble lies and I again request that you give serious consideration to the matter of removing the present mayor and putting in his place one who will represent ideals of decency and honor and give us an administration of a cleaner and nobler character.

Mayor Brown was not removed from office, but he was defeated at the next election by Bertha Knight Landes, who ran on a platform of clean government.

Living on the tide flats

tide flats

SMA's General Files include an 1884 letter to city leaders from George and Catherine Hill asking to be allowed to remain in their home. The Hills owned two houses on the tide flats at the foot of University Street, one with four rooms that they rented out, and the second with two rooms where they lived with their children. Catherine had lived on this property for seven years, and George had joined her there after they were married. They noted that the area was "unimproved and unused" and that their occupancy was "neither a nuisance to the public nor an obstruction to the highway."

They had learned that the city, "doubtless at the instance of some evil disposed persons, and laboring under a mistakement of the facts, and misinterpretation of the law," had ordered their houses to be razed. The Hills had been told to vacate their property, and the city marshal was directed to forcibly remove them if they refused.

The letter stated that Catherine was "greatly afflicted with the Rheumatism and much of the time helpless and under medical care." George was a longshoreman but "unable to earn much at his uncertain and unsteady trade, even when he can get employment and is able to work at it." Both were around sixty years old, and their main source of income was the rent on the larger house. If they were evicted, they said George would be forced to leave town to find work, and that without his care, Catherine would need to seek support from the city or county.

The Hills reminded city officials that "your Petitioners are citizens, Tax-payers, and bona fide residents of said City, and claim the same right to live in peace and the same opportunity to support and take care of themselves, as best they can, that is guaranteed to other well disposed citizens and inhabitants thereof." They asked to be "left undisturbed in the peaceful possession and quiet enjoyment of their humble home and little property."

The letter was written on March 21 but was not filed with City Council until April 3. Whatever caused the delay, it was costly to the Hills; when the Committee on Streets reported back to the Council on April 4, they noted that "said buildings have all been removed."