weather icon Clear

Las Vegas’ first black firefighters will be honored at Doolittle Center

Monroe Williams was hired to put out blazes, but one flame couldn’t be extinguished: his determination to be promoted within the Las Vegas Fire Department.

Williams was one of the first African American firefighters hired in 1963 and worked during a time when discriminatory practices were all too common. Frustrating as it may have been to be passed up for promotions, Williams is remembered by many for his persistence and positive attitude in the face of adversity.

“Even though he was a pioneer and he was overlooked six, seven times for a promotion, he didn’t exude ‘disgruntled-ness.’ He was excited. I was amazed he had that much tolerance,” recalled Lawrence Wickliffe, who worked with Williams for about 10 years. “When the opportunity presented itself, he went after it.”

Williams, who died in 2012, served in the Las Vegas Fire Department until he retired in 1988. It took him almost 20 years to be promoted to fire captain.

“Monroe became that model of ‘let’s do the best we can through the system,’” Wickliffe said.

The valley’s earliest African American firefighters, including Williams, will be commemorated during the “The 2nd Annual Sharing the History of Black Firefighters in Southern Nevada” event, to be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Doolittle Senior Center. The event will feature historical photographs of firefighters, a firetruck for children to explore and opportunities to learn about recruitment.

The event, part of the city’s Black History Month observances, is being presented by the Westside School Alumni Association of which Williams’ wife, Brenda, is president. Monroe Williams’ early education began at the school in 1945, according to his obituary.

‘Like show and tell’

Saturday’s event is to help people remember a part of history, Brenda Williams said, adding she hopes it will inspire other African Americans to join the Fire Department. Last year the photo exhibit had 280 visitors in the course of a month, she said.

“It’s significant. It’s like show and tell,” Brenda Williams said. “It’s important that we show our young people what career opportunities are available to them with the city and county and other entities. If they can see someone else did it, then they know they can do it.

Monroe Williams and James Walker were the first black firefighters in Las Vegas when the Fire Department became integrated in 1963. The two faced bigotry in their work environment.

“Even still, they indiscriminately served the lives and property of all citizens,” Brenda Williams said.

The year Monroe Williams was hired, the civil rights movement was well underway.

“In 1963, those were days during the civil rights era when things were really breaking apart due to protests not only for the city of Las Vegas, but for the country,” Brenda Williams said. “Monroe and James, they just wanted a decent career like everyone else.”

Wickliffe, who has been with the Las Vegas Fire Department for 45 years, recalled that Monroe Williams and Bill Young were the first black firefighters to be promoted in 1982 to fire captain.

Discriminatory promotions weren’t just an issue in Las Vegas; they happened around the country.

“That was a trend. Fire chiefs were not bold enough to break the color barrier,” Wickliffe said.

African American firefighters all over the nation were asking for fair and standard tests.

“When I went through the promotional process, I realized I had to be above everyone else. If I tested, I had to do really well,” said Wickliffe, who is black.

Blazing trails

Looking back, Wickliffe credits Monroe Williams with making it possible for him to be battalion chief — a role he still fills today.

“He was my mentor. He was a trailblazer to make changes in the department,” Wickliffe said. “He was a model employee for the city in the sense that he never stopped trying.”

Wickliffe believes there’s more work that needs to be done to diversify fire departments across the valley.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, 9 percent of career firefighters at local and municipal fire departments from 2013 through 2017 were African American.

Strides need to be taken among other groups as well, Wickliffe said. Of career firefighters nationwide, less than 5 percent are female, 8 percent are Hispanic or Latino, and 1 percent are Asian, according to the national association.

Statistics for Las Vegas area fire departments were not immediately available.

“I personally think it’s important to diversify the fire service. It’s a good way for everyone to have input,” Las Vegas fire Capt. Lionel Newby said.

To tackle the issue head on, Newby and others visit middle and high schools to inspire students to join the Fire Department as part of the United Firefighters of Southern Nevada, a chapter of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters.

People who become firefighters “make a difference in people’s lives,” Newby said. “Every day is not the same. You never know what you will have that day. If you like not having the same routine every day, then I think the fire service is a good career.”

Wickliffe, president of the United Firefighters of Southern Nevada, said he believes the department should do more outreach to ensure that prospective African American candidates are in the loop when it comes to hiring. He also thinks the department should hire more local firefighters.

His advice to those interested in joining: Pay attention.

“Contact the Fire Department and find out what their patterns are for when they hire. Get your name on a reference list they have,” he said. “They will send you out a notice that they will be hiring.”

Contact Alex Chhith at achhith@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0290. Follow @alexchhith on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Local Videos
Cars line up for over 4 miles for food
Cars were lined up along Sahara Avenue from Palace Station to South Rainbow Boulevard for food distribution sponsored by Three Square and Central Church in Henderson.
Two large fires hit parts of the Las Vegas Valley - VIDEO
Renee Summerour wraps up the two large fire that hit part of the Las Vegas Valley Late Wednesday , early morning Thursday. RJ reporter Glenn Puit was at both scenes. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas hotels light up their windows to show support during shutdown - VIDEO
Hotels on the Las Vegas Strip lit up their windows with hearts and messages to show support during the coronavirus pandemic, Wednesday night, April 1. (Le'Andre Fox and James Schaeffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Isolation and quarantine center for homeless at Cashman Center - VIDEO
A new isolation and quarantine center for homeless is under construction at the Cashman Center in downtown Las Vegas, March 31. (K.M Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Day care changes hours and takes extra steps to help guardians - VIDEO
Sarah Washington, whose children attend Discovery Gardens Childcare, shares the importance of the facility’s hour changes, and child care director Ariella Thomas discusses some other changes Discovery Gardens Childcare has made, in Las Vegas on Monday, March 30, 2020. (Elizabeth Page Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Elipagephoto
Costco reduces hours at Las Vegas Valley stores, gasoline pumps - VIDEO
Costco announced it will reduce hours at its stores and gas pumps starting Monday. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police investigate apparent murder-suicide
Las Vegas police investigate an apparent murder-suicide in the 3900 block of Chasing Heart Way on Saturday, March 28, 2020. (Ellen Schmidt/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Homeless outreach organization feeds people in age of social distancing - VIDEO
Homeless outreach organization Food Not Bombs handed out sack lunches, hygiene kits and blankets on Foremaster Lane in Las Vegas, Thursday, March 26, 2020. Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, which has temporarily closed its dining room and emergency night shelter, also handed out to-go lunches on Foremaster Lane. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Nevada gets an A for social distancing
In an interactive Scoreboard by tech company Unacast, organizations can measure and understand the efficacy of social distancing. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada construction continues as coronavirus spreads
When Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered Nevada businesses closed, he let construction workers stay on the job, deeming homebuilding and other construction “essential” lines of work.
Pedestrian struck, killed in western Las Vegas Valley crash - VIDEO
Las Vegas police are investigating after a pedestrian was struck and killed in a crash Wednesday night in the west valley. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police investigate fatal crash in east Las Vegas - VIDEO
Las Vegas police said a pedestrian was killed when they were hit by a vehicle near Sloan Lane and of East Charleston Boulevard on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Seeing teachers at a distance, closed parks and lack of toilet paper - VIDEO
The neighboring towns of Logandale and Overton, northeast of Las Vegas, are experiencing the effects of coronavirus, with closed schools and playgrounds and fewer items in grocery stores. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas residents enjoy the snow at Lee Canyon - VIDEO
Las Vegas residents get out to enjoy the snow at Lee Canyon on Mount Charleston. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Post office stays open amidst shutdown - VIDEO
Mail delivery and services at post offices continues despite the coronavirus crisis. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
1 person dies in east Las Vegas fire - VIDEO
One person and a dog were found dead after a fire in a detached structure adjacent to a house near East Monroe Avenue and North Betty Lane in east Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Albertsons, Walmart, Amazon increase pay amid coronavirus impact - VIDEO
Grocery stores and other retailers have raised employee pay as they work to meet customer demand during the coronavirus pandemic. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
High winds move clouds across the Las Vegas Valley - Time-lapse video
Isolated showers depart when gusty winds move in probably remain through Wednesday, March 25, when another storm front is expected. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Downtown's Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign moving to Neon Museum - VIDEO
Yesco workers remove the Pabst Blue Ribbon neon sign at Fremont Street and Las Vegas Boulevard on Monday, March 23, 2020. The sign, which has been at the location for five years, will be displayed at the Neon Museum. A museum representative said a replacement neon sign is in the works. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Distance Learning challenges for Clark County School District - VIDEO
Renee Summerour sits down with RJ reporter Aleksandra Appleton to discuss the challenges the Clark County School District is facing with Distance Learning, a program that was slated to begin Monday, March 23. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Deliver with Dignity will give 100 families meals today - VIDEO
“Deliver with Dignity” was created “to bring high-quality meals directly to the most vulnerable families in the Las Vegas Valley, keeping them and the community safe by reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19.” (Facebook/Clark County)
CCSD board holds an emergency meeting on Distance Learning - VIDEO
The Clark County School Board held an emergency meeting on Monday morning, the day that distance learning was supposed to begin at all schools in Nevada. (Clark County School District)
Las Vegas Valley residents make medical masks for health care workers - VIDEO
Anissa Gustafson has spent most of her week sewing masks in an effort to assist health care workers in the Las Vegas Valley who are running out because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Rachel Aston/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Coronavirus patients could inundate hospitals - VIDEO
RJ Investigations reporter Michael S. Davidson talks about how a rapid influx of coronavirus patients could soon inundate Nevada hospitals, pushing them past their capacity and threatening health care workers’ safety. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
M Resort donates food surplus to workers - VIDEO
The M Resort donated a surplus of perishable food supplies to team members after the closure of the hotel due to a shutdown of nonessential businesses in Nevada, Friday, March 20, 2020. (Erik Verduzco/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Costco reserved earliest hour for seniors - VIDEO
People line up outside Costco in Henderson after the store reserved earliest hour for seniors on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
2 pedestrians injured after being hit by vehicle - VIDEO
Two men were injured when they were hit by a car on Warm Springs Road near Bruce Street in southeast Las Vegas on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas shopping lines still long - VIDEO
Senior shoppers line up at 7 a.m. outside of Smith's Marketplace on Skye Canyon Park Drive in northwest Las Vegas, Friday, March 20, 2020. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Dos and Dont's: Cleaning your smartphone of germs - VIDEO
Check out the dos and dont's for cleaning your phone of germs. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
More Las Vegas Valley grocery stores offer early hours for seniors - VIDEO
A growing list of Las Vegas Valley retailers are offering special shopping hours for seniors in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Missing hiker's sister on staying hopeful - Video
Karsta Lucas, the sister of Ronnie Lucas, a hiker missing at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, said Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, that family members remain hopeful the 33-year-old diabetic will be found safe despite spending two nights in the open without his insulin. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Search continues for missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon - Video
Volunteers come out to Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area west of Las Vegas to help find a hiker, Ronnie Lucas, who went missing on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Search for missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon - Video
Red Rock Search & Rescue is looked for the missing hiker at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on Monday, Feb. 10, 2010. The man was reported missing on Sunday. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas ready to enforce homeless camping ban - VIDEO
Las Vegas police will begin enforcing a controversial camping ban on city streets on Saturday, but officials say they expect to impose the penalties available under the new ordinance only in rare instances. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Officials celebrate opening of Las Vegas park named for slain officer - Video
Top public officials came together Friday morning to celebrate the grand opening of Officer Alyn Beck Memorial Park in the northwest valley, named after a police officer killed in the line of duty in 2014. (Nathan Asselin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Wrong-way driver causes fatal crash near Las Vegas airport, authorities say - VIDEO
A suspected impaired motorist driving the wrong way on the Airport Connector caused a crash that killed another driver near McCarran International Airport early Friday morning, Jan. 17, 2020, according to law enforcement. (Glenn Puit/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The car that Tupac was shot in is for sale - VIDEO
The vehicle that legendary rapper Tupac Shakur was riding in when he was shot after a boxing match in Las Vegas is up for auction. The black 1996 BMW 7 Series is listed by Celebrity Cars Las Vegas for $1.75 million. (Angus Kelly/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegan remembered for WWII service, Jewish federation support

Jerome Countess, a Silver Star recipient in World War II and a longtime supporter of the Las Vegas Jewish Federation, died March 18 at University Medical Center after a fall in his Summerlin home. He was 99.

UNLV might run out of COVID-19 test kits after Tuesday

UNLV Medicine could run out of coronavirus test kits after Tuesday due to a national shortage. It has been offering curbside testing since March 24.