The color of one’s skin has nothing to do with the character needed to run into a burning building to save others. The men of Engine 4 proved it more than a half-century ago.
It was 1951, 12 years before the March on Washington, nine years before the Greensboro Sit-ins, three years before Brown v. Board of Education. And fire departments across North Carolina were segregated.
Then the Winston-Salem Fire Department (WSFD) chose eight African-American men to serve alongside seven white men on Engine 4, creating North Carolina’s first integrated fire department.
Chosen from among 125 applicants, the men were Willie “Chick” Carter, Robert Grier, and six who are now deceased: Raphael Black Lester Ervin, John Henry Ford, John Meredith, George Penn, and John Thomas. Four were college graduates; the others had at least two years of college. But for each one, selection marked a turning point in his life.
“You would think that they would have only chosen men with college degrees, but they didn’t,” Grier said. “They chose men based on courage and ability, and ‘the three A’s: agility, attitude, and aptitude’.”
Grier, 96, had been a student at NC A&T State University when he was drafted at age 19. Following service with the Army Air Corps in Burma in WWII, he was considering a move to California in search of better opportunities when applications opened for firefighters. He saw his selection as a gift from God, for it allowed him to keep his family in North Carolina and, during off-duty days, pursue his other passion of playing bass in jazz bands and at church.
Carter, 92, was looking toward a career in coaching. The WWII Navy veteran was attending Winston-Salem State University on his GI Bill benefits but had missed fall enrollment due to playing baseball for the National Negro Baseball League. Coaxed by a friend, he applied to become a firefighter, accepting the job with the intention of serving for six months and then returning to college.
“None of us knew anything about fighting fires, but the training was very interesting,” Carter said. “I liked the work and I loved the fellows. So, when the time came for me to put in my resignation, I told my wife ‘I think I’ll stay one more year.’ It became my life.”
The challenge of being integration trailblazers drew the men together.
“The eight of us were just like brothers and we never had an incident between us,” Grier said. “We opened up every morning with devotion and prayer.”
Some white residents, as well as some senior officers in the department, objected to the idea of African-American firefighters, Carter said. But City leaders were firmly in favor of integration.
“The City administrator met with us and told us ‘just go do your job and do what you’re supposed to do. I’ve got your back’,” Carter said. “And that’s what we did.”
Engine 4, with its integrated company, took pride in a reputation for aggressive firefighting.
“We learned early that the quicker you get to where the fire is burning, the quicker you can put it out,” Carter said. “You can’t stand out in the street and throw water in the window. Our motto was ‘Get in quick’.”
The men of Engine 4 became departmental leaders. Grier and Carter were promoted to Sergeant. Black was promoted to Lieutenant. Ervin, who had led Engine 4’s daily devotion, became WSFD’s first African-American Captain. In 1980, Ervin was appointed Fire Chief, the first African-American career Chief in North Carolina.
A humble man, Grier loved being a firefighter. He saw it as a Heaven-sent opportunity to provide for his family while helping others, such as the woman badly-injured in a severe automobile accident who he was able to calm as paramedics arrived to begin medical care.
Grier retired in 1979 after 28 years as a firefighter, saying he was looking forward to serving the community in new ways.
As Carter neared the latter stages of his career and people, including his family, asked when he planned to retire, he always replied “next year.” In 1985, then a Captain, he finally stepped down after 35 years of service. But he never lost his love for firefighting.
“I still go down to the station every once in a while,” he said. “I don’t know all those young guys now, but they know me. So I sit down and chew the fat with them. Have you seen all those hoses and nozzles and equipment they have now? Oh, my.”
In 2017, in recognition of their work and dedication to the department and community, Carter and Grier were named honorary Chiefs.
“Being a fireman meant you had to be in good physical shape,” Carter said. “And you had to have heart – courage – because the work is dangerous. But when you can get someone out of a burning building and save their life, that’s a real good feeling.”
By Katelynn Patterson