Atlanta honors city's first African-American firefighters

ATLANTA — Monday marks 50 years since 16 brave men broke the color barrier and became the first African-American firefighters in the city of Atlanta.

Channel 2's John Bachman was at the northwest Atlanta fire station on Joseph E. Boon Boulevard when the department marked the historic moment Monday afternoon.

The first 16 African-American firefighters joined the Atlanta Fire Department at Station 16 on April 1, 1963.

"It was like a new beginning. Like breaking down a barrier, which it was. From 1889 to 1962, a black man couldn't apply to be firefighter in this city," said William Callier, one of the first 16 African-American firefighters.

City Councilman Michael Julian Bond held a ceremony honoring the anniversary. City leaders unveiled a marker for the barrier the 16 firefighters broke. Men and women of all backgrounds in uniform were at the fire station Monday.

Bachman said Station 16 is a very typical Atlanta fire station, but it hasn't always been that way.

Fifty years ago it was the first all black fire station in the city of Atlanta.

Monday Chief Kelvin Cochran, Mayor Kasim Reed, Coucilman Julian Bond and heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield paid tribute to the men and women who came before them and broke the color barrier.

Atlanta Mayor Reed recognized six of the 16 firefighters that were at the ceremony.

"I came because I wanted to look you in the eye personally, as a person who benefited from hardships you went through," said Reed.

Retired chief William Hamer talked about the first day, "Segregation was the law of the land. (The) whole idea was to get us to leave."

Cochran said because the 16 stayed the department is diverse and strong today.

Bachman spoke with Callier about another barrier he broke less than a year later.

Callier said, "When we were all here, it was nice. We knew if we went to another station, we'd have a lot we'd have to fight."

Callier and four others volunteered to move to Station 6, which became the first truly integrated Atlanta fire station.

"We met some discrimination. Blatant discrimination. We were told that this is a white man job, not an 'N' job, but we knew we had to succeed," Callier said.

Fourteen years later, Liz Summers and six other black women broke the gender barrier.

Summers, a retired battalion chief, said, "I left a legacy. I paved the way for the other women, other minorities, not just women," including her son, who is now a captain with the fire department.

"It was history. (We) broke barriers. Not only black male officers but female officers," said Atlanta Fire Department Capt. Irving Reese.

Callier volunteers every week at Station 6.

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