Wesley Williams, the First Black Firefighter in NYC, Chatting with Great Grandson [INTERVIEW]
Now more than ever, the story of Wesley Williams must be told.
As the first African American firefighter to join the Fire Department, Williams defied the odds again and became Chief in 1919. His detail was Engine 55, which is still active at 363 Broome Street in Little Italy (where Steve Buscemi volunteered).
He later founded The Vulcan Society, in 1940, which was a group of Black firefighters who opposed segregation in the force.
“The day Engine 55 learned it was going to have to swallow the stigma of working with a black man, the captain put in for a transfer — along with every single firefighter in the company,” writes Ginger Adams Otis in the book Firefight: The Century-Long Battle To Integrate New York’s Bravest. “An order came back swift and stern from FDNY headquarters: the Negro stays, and so does everyone else.”
Ladies and Gentleman, today we chat with Loukas Williams, the great, great grandson of Wesley.
BOWERY BOOGIE: Welcome, Loukas! So, when was the first time you heard the story about your great, great granddad?
LOUKAS WILLIAMS: I was probably a toddler. Maybe three. I met him when I was three or five. He introduced me to quiche. There was really one particular encounter from when I went to visit him and I remember being hungry. The only thing he had in his fridge was a slice of quiche and half a stick of butter. Ever since then I fancy a spinach quiche.
BB: Wow! When did your family tell you about his contributions to the FDNY and NYC as a whole?
LW: I mean, it has always just been part of my life. My dad wrote his book about it and finished it when I was 11 or 12. It’s just somewhat always been a family thing.
LW: Yes, my dad made sure of it. They have all of our family photos and letters. All of my dad’s research he did for his book, The Chief. New York’s First Black Fire Chief Pretty large collection.
BB: When did you first recognize the significance of your family to Black history in New York?
LW: I was 8 when they did his statue presentation and I was in a picture in the paper and that was strange to me. I am not sure I even grasped it until I joined a fraternity and that wasn’t until my mid-20s. He also founded The Vulcan Society on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. He created it to be the fraternal society for firefighters. The same way his father had founded the Red Caps for the black porters, my great grandpa founded a black fraternal society for firefighters. Everyone called him the Chief except me. I don’t think I was old enough to recognize that.
BB: So Wesley married at 16 to your great grandmother, Peggy, and was assigned to the Little Italy’s Engine 55 in 1919 at the age of 21. He would travel there all the way from the Bronx which meant passing through Grand Central and seeing his father- Chief of the “Red Caps” at Grand Central Terminal for 45 years. (His biography, “Boss of the Grips” was written by Erik Washington and published in 2020.) (Pullman Porters). What do you think his dad’s advice was to his son?
LW: My great, great, great grandfather didn’t want him leaving his wife for so long, but that’s all I really remember from the story. They were both Chiefs. Both responsible for a huge part of NYC black history. It’s crazy.
BB: Amazing really. Oh right, one of the books about him- Firefight by Ginger Adams Otis said Williams would leave Peggy alone for up to 15 days when he reported for duty.
LW: Yeah that’s why he had to sleep in the basement, well they tried to put him in the basement but he said no- he made the roof of the firehouse his bunk.
BB: Right! So where is the statue?
LW: It is in the lobby of the Harlem YMCA.
BB: That’s crazy; my grandparents have a plaque inside the Tenement Museum. I can’t imagine a statue. It would creep me out, I think.
LW: Yeah it’s trippy.
BB: Speaking of the Tenement Museum- are you excited about their new tour about Black Spaces which highlights Engine 55 and Wesley?
LW: Yeah sure, I mean I didn’t know about it and neither did my dad until you told us, but yeah I am glad his story is still being told.
BB: You didn’t know? How is that even possible?
LW: No one contacted us. It would have been really cool to be a part of the planning for that.
BB: Switching gears – the phrase “The Negro” permeated the headlines. Seeing that now…how does that make you feel?
LW: I can’t even imagine. It’s insane but at the same time a lot of that stuff continues.
BB: Do you think that places are just now adding tours that include Engine 55 and your great grandpa as opposed to before because of the BLM movement?
LW: I mean it’s unfortunate yeah- his story is understated, given his importance to NYC and the FDNY, the degree to which the legacy persists. Every firefighter I’ve ever met- they know him instantly. I usually do not bring it up, but if we are in a conversation that is getting more in depth I will say “my great grandpa was Wesley Williams” and they know instantly. There are icons that need to be celebrated in light of our current situation. I am glad more people are being made aware of this. It’s always been a persistent motivational factor for me.
BB: Didn’t your great, great grandfather escape slavery? I mean you literally have a lineage of greatness.
LW: Yes, thank you. Hard shoes to fill sometimes.
BB: You didn’t really talk about it with me prior to 2017, remember I said how the heck did not tell me this!
LW: I don’t know, I’m not really an extrovert.
BB: Ha! no shit.
LW: But now that the narrative is out there- I’m glad he is getting more recognition. He had it before but this will expand that.