N.J. city honors city’s first 3 Black firefighters, all veterans, as trailblazers
A Newark firehouse was dedicated to David Lee Bolden, William Thomas Jr., and Shelton Harris Jr.
NEWARK, N.J. — David Lee Bolden didn’t beat around the bush when asked why he wanted to become a Newark firefighter 65 years ago.
“I needed the job,” said Bolden, 92, matter-of-factly. “And also, to help the city.”
He kept it modest. But on Friday, Bolden and two others were recognized by city officials as trailblazers for their work as the first three paid Black firefighters in Newark.
“I know there were times when you were a firefighter, they wouldn’t even let African American firefighters actually go fight fires,” Mayor Ras Baraka told Bolden before shaking his hand. “You had to actually just salvage or clean up after the fire was actually fought.”
The two others who were honored are no longer living.
William Thomas, Jr. was a Newark firefighter from 1951 to 1979 and Shelton Harris, Jr. worked from 1954 to 1993. Bolden worked in the department from 1956 to 1985.
All three served in the United States Army, too. Thomas and Bolden served in Korean War, officials said.
Bolden, Thomas and Harris were also the first members of the Vulcan Pioneers of Newark, a fraternal order of Black firefighters that was created in 1953 and incorporated in 1957.
Bolden said it would’ve taken too long to explain what his experience was like in the fire department in a career that spanned 28 years. But other members of the Vulcan Pioneers helped fill in the gaps from stories they’ve heard from Bolden and others.
“They had just one bed they could sleep in,” said Latina Byrd, a Newark firefighter and member of the Vulcan Pioneers. “It was for Blacks only.”
The firehouse at 360 Clinton Ave. was dedicated to Bolden, Thomas and Harris on Friday. A bronze plaque will be placed on the facade of the building June 12.
“It’s clearly an honor that’s long overdue,” said Newark Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara, who called the three men trailblazers.
The Vulcan Pioneers helped recruit the current Newark fire chief, Rufus Jackson. He credited the three men who helped create the fraternal organization with giving him hope, opportunity and a purpose.
“Their careers spanned from the 1950s to the 1990s, when there were trying times for people of color,” said Jackson. “But, they were able to endure and overcome the obstacles of that time and even reach out to bring others along.”
The mayor noted that when Bolden was a firefighter, he probably could never imagine that he’d be able to reach the highest ranks of the department. That’s obviously changed today: Jackson, the fire chief, is Black.
Bolden no longer has to imagine, either. City officials on Friday made him an honorary fire chief.
“Wow,” the 92-year-old said with a beaming smile as a white helmet was placed on his head with the word chief on it.
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