Wesley Williams, the First Black Firefighter in NYC, Chatting with Great Grandson [INTERVIEW]

Posted on: June 11th, 2021 at 5:10 am by

Courtesy of the Williams family

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.

BB: Schomberg (Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New Public Library) has an entire collection devoted to your great grandfather. Can you tell us how that happened?

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.

Courtesy of the Williams family

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.

Courtesy of L. Williams

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.

Recent Stories

The Ten Bells Rings in New Bushwick Bar

The Ten Bells is ringing in a new outpost – this time, not on the Lower East Side, but in Brooklyn. Bushwick, specifically. The natural wine bar has taken over a space that previously housed a Breaking Bad-themed coffee shop, Walter’s Coffee Roastery. The OG at 247 Broome Street is still alive and kicking, though […]

Graffiti Sheathed Burger King on Delancey Street Looks Burned Out [Updated]

Don’t call it a BK bust just yet. The Burger King on Delancey Street continues its devolution, but we are assured it remains operational. Despite its looks. Enveloped in graffiti and plywood boards for the majority of the pandemic (owing thanks to a car that landed inside the restaurant) the fast food joint had nevertheless […]

City Turbo Charges Essex Street Municipal Garage with Electric Car Stations

The municipal parking garage on Essex Street is charged up for a new future. That of electric vehicles. Last week, the Department of Transportation unveiled four new fast-charging stations in the carpark. The addition on the Lower East Side is the first in a rollout across the city for the technology, which provides an 80-percent […]

Bay Area Export ‘Beloved Cafe’ Aims to Serve by Month End on Allen Street

The Lower East Side will soon be flowing with golden milk. Beloved Cafe – a San Francisco-based vegan eatery and juice bar – is headed to 196 Allen Street. As previously reported, the new location is the first expansion for the company beyond its Bay Area environs. Ownership promises that the new cafe is to […]

Economy Candy Rebounds with New Store Layout

Economy Candy officially returned from the pandemic sidelines with a block party and fresh store layout. The celebration involved the Big Gay Ice Cream truck outside 108 Rivington Street, and Gotham chocolates parked inside doling free samples. In the remodel, the store did not lose any of its old-school-warehouse-meets-Willy-Wonka charm. And it’s now substantially easier […]