City officials reminded of racist past of PFD

During the public forum at the beginning of last Thursday’s Pensacola City Council meeting, several citizens spoke in support of the fire chiefs that have been under investigation for undisclosed issues since Feb. 2.

Many called for the termination of City Administrator Eric Olson and Human Resources Chief Ed Sisson.

The last speaker was retired Pensacola firefighter John Newton, who was hired as the city’s first black fireman in 1969 with the help of General Chappie James.

He reminded the city officials of how difficult has been for any African-American to work for the Pensacola Fire Department. Newton was concerned that when Joe Glover was made deputy fire chief that his pay was not at the level of the two men he replaced, even though he had more education and experience.

John Newton:

I’m going to give you a history lesson. In 1969, a man came up and asked me would I take the test for the fire department, because he said that the personnel manager said poor blacks take the tests, or those that did take the test couldn’t pass. I said, “Okay, I’ll take the test.” I’ll go have a good job, and so I’ll do this. I took the test and came out number one on the list. Didn’t think any more about it until I found out that they hired 12 people without any call to me in for an interview, which was against the Civil Service regulations.

A friend of my father’s, Chappie James, was in town, heard about it. He had some lawyers in Atlanta contact me. They gave the city notice that we were going to file a suit against the city. And the fire Chief called me and asked if I could come down for an interview. He said that he had promised the opening to somebody else and he would give me the next opening. I said fine, you’re the chief.

The next day a man from the highway patrol came and offered me a job. Said “The fire chief told me to come and see you.” They didn’t want any blacks on the fire department back then. Chappie James said “The lawyers would be there, I’m paying for the attorney.” The next day the chief called me and said when do you want to go to work?”

I spent 10 years at a station where I slept, I was the only one sleeping in that bed. I didn’t have to take the linen off the bed at the end of each watch because nobody was sleeping in my bed.

I tell you, one time a came to work and all the beds were out on the hose rack, I asked what was wrong, they said they had bed bugs. I said “Well why did y’all put my bed out there?” “Yours didn’t have any bed bugs.” After that everybody wanted to sleep in my bed.

Rusty Wells was the city attorney at that time. And when I got hurt on the job and went into inspections, I had a chief that said don’t worry,in a private meeting and I was in the next room, I heard him he said “He won’t be here long, we never had..”, and I’ll say ‘blacks’ but that’s not the word he used. “We never had any blacks in a white shirt in this department, and as long as I’m the chief we won’t have one.”

I told a friend of mine, John Lewis Allbritton, an attorney, about it. We had a meeting with Rusty Wells and the city attorney and the city manager at that time, and the chief. After a few questions that the attorney asked the fire chief, Rusty Wells stood up and said “This meeting’s over with, chief you can leave, chief doesn’t know what he’s talking about”. Came down to it, the chief ended up resigning, retiring at the end of the year, two months later.

I know the time is out, I got one more item I want to tell you. Since I was there, three different chiefs had taken that job and all of them, after a certain length of time according to civil service law, ended up getting paid the regular salary. I don’t know why it didn’t apply in this case. One other thing. It’s not what you say, it’s what that judge says. Thank you sir.

Note: Rusty Wells is still with the City of Pensacola. He is a special assistant to the city administrator.