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Plaques honoring black firefighters to be replaced

Ald. Willie B. Cochran (3rd from right) speaks Thursday press conference called by Committee Preserve History Chicago's Black Firefighters. The

Ald. Willie B. Cochran (3rd from right) speaks at a Thursday press conference called by the Committee to Preserve the History of Chicago's Black Firefighters. The Committee was angry over the Chicago Fire Department's lack of action over the past five years on replacing two historical plaques honoring black firefighters. | Leslie Outerbridge photo

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Updated: March 23, 2014 6:06AM

Black firefighters who sought the Chicago Fire Department’s replacement of two large and expensive plaques created to pay tribute to their rich legacy achieved their goal Thursday after five years of trying.

“We’ve communicated over the years with several fire commissioners, asking for the replacement of these plaques,” complained the group’s executive director, Leslie Outerbridge, 78, at a news conference Thursday.

“It’s really an act of disrespect to the community by the Fire Department that is supposed to have been maintaining… these plaques,” added Outerbridge, who retired in 1995.

Assistant Deputy Fire Cmdr. Mark Nielsen, who attended the black firefighters’ news conference, said while he couldn’t speak for past commissioners, it had just been miscommunication with the current administration.

“The commissioner’s office has been moving on this,” spokesman Larry Langford said afterward. “We had actually moved to get three replacement plaques. There was a little bit of a delay, but the plaques are being finished now. We’re planning a ceremony to install them, along with a celebration of their standing.”

Since 2008, the group the Committee to Preserve the History of Chicago’s Black Firefighters has been asking the department to replace two of three plaques created after the City Council passed a March 6, 1996 resolution which recognized the contributions of black firefighters. The plaques each cost about $500, Outerbridge said.

The resolution, narrating the history that began with the hiring of William Watkins, the city’s first black firefighter, on March 27, 1873, was engraved onto three plaques, which were then dedicated at the Fire Academy in a ceremony on July 13, 1996.

One was displayed at the Academy, and remains there today. A second was placed in the commissioner’s office, and later disappeared. A third, now severely vandalized, was placed at the firehouse at 3421 S. Calumet Ave. — where some 20 retired and current firefighters held the news conference.

The black firefighters hope to open their museum later this year at a vacant firehouse at 5349 S. Wabash the city has provided with a 10-year, $1 lease.

The city’s first all-black engine company — No. 21, located at 9th and Wabash streets — was where Watkins, its first black hire, worked. It later became Engine Co. No. 19, now housed at 3421 S. Calumet along with Truck No. 11, the city’s first black hook and ladder company.

The firehouse sliding pole was invented by a Chicago black firefighter, Capt. David B. Kenyon of Co. No. 21, in 1878.

The 1996 City Council resolution was hard won. Years of acrimony between the city and its black firefighters peaked with a 1973 federal class-action suit over discrimination in hiring and promotions. Outerbridge was one of the plaintiffs.

Introduced by then-Ald. Madeline Haithcock, the resolution accompanied a proclamation from former Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, had adamantly refused to abide by a consent decree in the 1973 lawsuit, leading to the withholding of federal funding for the department until the elder Daley finally signed the decree in 1977.

But for five years, the black firefighters’ group had nothing to show in their quest to replace the plaques but reams of unanswered correspondence with three fire commissioners — including Santiago — until Thursday, they said.

“This quest has been about a lot more than just plaques,” said Outerbridge, who joined the department in 1961 and wrote a 2007 memoir, “White Smoke,” about discrimination in the department. “Overall, it’s the principle of the thing.”

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