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Marcena Taylor

A mob of about 200 sweaty, screaming people blocked the streets when Detroit’s first two black firefighters showed up for duty at Engine Co. No. 34 at Warren and Livernois on the city’s west side.

It was a July day in 1938, a morning for slow-moving ceiling fans and icy soft drinks, not flushed faces and yells of rage. After members of the firefighters’ union spread word through the neighborhood that black firemen were coming, an angry white crowd quickly formed.

It was only a month since people had crowded Paradise Valley, Detroit’s black entertainment district, to celebrate boxing champion Joe Louis’ June 22 victory over Germany’s Max Schmeling. Black men and women had wept on the streets after Louis– America’s only dignified and larger than life black hero—lost to the German boxer in 1936. However, in the summer of 1938, Louis won his rematch with Schmeling two minutes and four seconds into the first round.

Yet the singing, shouting, dancing and hat-waving crowds that celebrated Louis’ victory were nothing like the mob that awaited Detroit’s first black firemen. That crowd swelled and swelled until Mayor Richard Reading finally sent top officials to the scene.

But their ordeal was just beginning.
 It had been challenging enough getting hired by a fire department that refused until 1935 to give blacks job applications. A civil rights group headed by activist Snow Grigsby spearheaded the breakthrough, according to Taylor.

A U.S. Postal Service employee, Snow Grigsby had founded the Civil Rights Committee in 1933 to battle discrimination in black hiring. Using his research to document institutional racism, Grigsby spurred changes in black hiring at the Detroit Board of Education, Detroit Edison, Detroit Receiving Hospital, the U.S. Postal Service and the Detroit Fire Department.

Of the black men who passed a firefighters’ exam in 1935,Marcena Taylor wound up No. 1 on the job eligibility list, and Marvin White was No. 2. After becoming firemen in 1938, the two men faced a tougher test. Without flinching or blinking, they had to look raw racism in the eye.

For six weeks after their first turbulent day at work, the men received police protection against residents in the surrounding area who rode around shouting racial epithets. The two men’s presence also stirred up alarm in their fire station house. Co-workers refused to eat or sleep in the same room with them. Taylor and White had to bring their own dishes, pots and pans to work and cook for themselves after the others were done.

A delegation of firemen headed by the president of the Detroit Fire Fighters’ Association also protested their assignment to Mayor Reading.
 Yet they persevered and even progressed in what had been a close-knit and closed-door club.

In the book Untold Tales, Unsung Heroes, Taylor talks about how he survived those early days by reading, talking to neighborhood youngsters and keeping his fighting spirit. A no-nonsense man with a degree from Livingstone College in Salisbury, S.C., he moved through the ranks to become the first black sergeant in 1952; the first black captain in 1963 and the first black battalion chief in 1969. He retired from the Detroit Fire Department as battalion chief in charge of the fourth battalion, with nine companies under his command. He died in 1994.

Marvin White also remained with the department. In 1959, he was promoted to senior assistant architectural engineer-fire prevention. He died of a heart attack in 1968.

In 1974, Melvin Jefferson became the first black fire commissioner in the City of Detroit. In1998. Harold Watkins Sr. became the first black chief of the firefighting division, reaping the harvest planted by Marcena Taylor and Marvin White on a sweaty day in 1938 when two black men with cool heads and stout hearts made history.

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