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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.

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