Oklahoma's First Black Firefighter Reflects
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Firefighters are the first line of defense when flames are threatening lives so it's no surprise they earned the nickname "Oklahoma's Bravest."
That name certainly applies to a group of African-American men who integrated the Oklahoma City Fire Department back in 1951.
As Black History month comes to a close it is important to look at one man and his lasting legacy.
That man is 82-year-old Carl Holmes. He was one of a group of 12 firefighters who withstood the heat that came from inside his own ranks --and made history.
A history that now hangs on the wall of the Oklahoma Firefighters Museum.
"Every time I come in here I see something different," Holmes said.
That's what Oklahoma City's black community wanted to see in 1950, something different, diversity. So when the city asked for their support during a bond election, the community asked for something in return.
"We also want firefighters," Holmes said. "They said, ‘No, we can't do that, we can't do that'."
In the end, the city agreed and the NAACP, along with the urban league, selected 12 men to join the academy.
"They took 12 pretty strong dudes," Holmes said. "Practically all of them had a college education."
All 12 made it through and the city's first black firehouse was born. But some inside the department turned up the heat against the men.
"One thing they did one year, they came out and took the communication system out of the truck, so we had no way of communicating," Holmes said.
The men persevered, and even got the attention of the insurance commission. It awarded them a trophy three years consecutively for being the best in the city. The trophy was to be placed in their firehouse.
"A couple of weeks later, they sent a truck out there and picked it up and took it to headquarters," Holmes said.
It was found years later, desecrated and discarded, but it's now be restored and bears the name of those men. Holmes, meanwhile, rose throughout the oppressive ranks to be the Assistant Fire Chief and even weighed offers from Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. He turned them all down and began consulting.
"I did a lot of work for other cities while I was here, coast to coast," Holmes said.
He later founded the Carl Holmes Executive Development Institute which teaches black firefighters from across the world. It's been going strong for 19 years and it's of that legacy he is most proud.
"I'm really not interested in what I did, not at all," he said. "I'm only interested in where are they going to go? That to me is really, really important."
There are about 12 female fire chiefs in the U.S. and five of them attended Holmes' school.
And in celebration of the last day of Black History Month, Saturday the Oklahoma City Museum of Art will offer free admission to its Harlem Renaissance Exhibit from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m.