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CHICAGO (CBS) – They’ve been waiting for a long, long time, but on Tuesday, the first of hundreds of African American applicants finally got a fair shot at Chicago firefighters’ jobs.
They’ve been waiting 16 years since filing a lawsuit accusing the fire department of discrimination in its testing for the Fire Department.
CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports on their stories about “the lost years.”
The firefighter candidates might have lost some strength and agility since they took the written test in 1995 and maybe gained some weight, but what many haven’t lost is their childhood dream.
“I just thought this was something that touched me deeply going back into my childhood; watching all these beautiful greystones in the city die and watching them die at the hands of fires. So I always wanted to be a firefighter,” said Michael Taqee, who took the city’s firefighter test in 1995.
Taqee was just one member of that class of 1995. They sued over that written test and the courts have ruled hundreds of African Americans who passed the test were unfairly passed over for jobs because of their race, rather than their ability.
Rick Moorhe was another member of that class.
“Back then, I was a kid and, like I said, I was just looking to do anything. Now, I wanna settle into a career,” he said.
Those firefighter candidates have been hoping for a rewarding career, saving lives, saving parts of Chicago’s history. It’s one of the toughest and most dangerous jobs there is. In the last year, two Chicago firefighters died in the line of duty.
Asked if the candidates, some of whom are now 50, an hope to be able to perform the physical duties of a firefighter, Deputy Fire Commissioner Charles Stewart said, “A 50-year-old who’s applying, hopes to be able to do this job, who’s properly trained, should be able to do the job.”
On Tuesday, the first group of the 800 candidates showed up for strength and agility testing, which will be given to the entire class over the next 10 days.
The first 111 candidates to pass the physical abilities tests, drug tests, background checks and medical exams will be hired as firefighters.
For years, the department has been trying to move past complaints about racial tensions and a lack of diversity.
In 1990, at a retirement party at Engine 100, firefighters were caught on video drinking and using racial slurs. In 2004, several racist radio transmissions were recorded on the Fire Department’s radio band. And studies of the department have concluded “the racial divide in the department is enormous.”
Asked if the Fire Department is more inclusive than in 1995 and if firefighters work well together, regardless of race, Stewart said, “We try to be, that’s our mission. Our job is to be there when you need us. We don’t decide who’s coming, we come.”
When the lawsuit over the 1995 firefighter test was settled, the African American candidates who were passed over were offered cash or another chance.
“I’m a little older. I know it’s gonna be a little harder, but I think I can go ahead and do what I have to do to get to the top of the job,” applicant Tony Mull said.
Citywide support of President Obama and the South Side and West Side support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel might indicate that Chicago could be moving toward a period of post-racial politics. How the new African American recruits are accepted in a department still 80% white might be an even better indicator.