After more than 30 years with the Chicago Fire Department, Quention Curtis had grown weary of the discriminatory hiring practices that have cost the city nearly $92 million in settlements since 2008.
Race and sex discrimination lawsuits have for decades dogged a department that didn’t welcome its first female firefighters until 1986, and which has discrimination lawsuits pending from as recently as 2016.
“Everything that blacks have ever gotten on this force, we got through court action,” said Curtis, 53, of Bronzeville, now an emergency medical technician with the rank of lieutenant.
“From the consent decree under Harold Washington to the class-action that got us the first 111 black firefighters — if we wanted anything, we had to take the city to court. The women too. You get tired of all that,” said Curtis, the man behind the Black Fire Brigade.
On Saturday, black firefighters from across the city will converge for a ribbon-cutting at their new clubhouse, 8404 S. Kedzie in the Ashburn neighborhood.
It’s a place for fellowship and support when confronted by departmental racism. It’s a place from which to mentor black youth, a place where more young black men and women can be helped to prepare for and pass the firefighters exam.
It’s all that and more, and long overdue, said Curtis, who in February bought the longtime home of the Gaelic Fire Brigade. The Irish firefighters group put the building on the market last summer.
When word spread, Curtis’ brethren came from far and wide to help refurbish the city’s first clubhouse for black firefighters.
“I had no idea what it would mean. I had guys who actually came and were in tears, saying they were never allowed in this building under the former tenants,” he said. “There are so few of us, and we’ve been so separated. We’ve never come together as a whole to discuss our issues, how to address them. My thing is to end all that.”
Working on the clubhouse — even something as simple as choosing photos for the walls — has led to poignant moments. On May 30, the brigade hosted a photo shoot for black female firefighters. In attendance was the very first — Mattie Rawski, hired November 1986.
“They came from all over. It was very emotional. These women didn’t even know each other. Now they have each other’s numbers. They didn’t even know about Mattie, who paved the way. They got a chance to talk to her. They all wanted a picture with her,” he said.
And on June 10, a photo shoot for the men was just as emotional. Retirees who flew in included John Brooks, now living in Texas. He was the first black fire department commissioner who’d come up through the ranks.
“Everyone was hugging. We all feel a part of something,” Curtis said.
Brooks and Rawski and a few hundred black firefighters are expected Saturday. The brigade will unveil its Memorial Wall, honoring the 13 black firefighters who have died in the line of duty.
Two awards will be presented — one honoring the most recent badge on that wall. Corey Ankum, 38, was killed Dec. 22, 2010, fighting a fire at a vacant South Side building where a roof and wall collapsed. Also killed was firefighter Edward Stringer, 47.
The inaugural Corey Ankum Leadership Award will go to his son, Torey Ankum, 8.
“When Torey heard what we were doing, he asked his mother to bring him to the Brigade, and asked if he could work here every day. If you’d seen how this 8-year-old painted, helping with gutting this place out, you’d know why he deserves the award,” Curtis said.
The second award is named for Arthur “Lee” Lewis, Jr., who brought the 1998 class-action suit over the city’s discriminatory handling of a 1995 firefighters entrance exam. In a 2011 settlement, the city agreed to hire 111 bypassed black firefighters and pay $78.4 million to nearly 6,000 who never got that chance, including Lewis.
The first to receive that award is Eric Washington, a black firefighter who in 2016 rallied his peers to collect and deliver thousands of cases of water to Flint, Mich., after the water there became poisoned with lead.
After Saturday’s celebration, however, the real work begins, Curtis said.
“This is bigger than us. It’s about our neighborhoods, our kids who are dying in the streets,” he said. “We have a responsibility to expose as many young black men and women to the fire service as possible, let them see us, bring them in, prepare them to pass the exam. The black community suffers for lack of exposure.”