It’s been several days now since nine Charleston firefighters lost their lives June 18. The loss of those nine men has touched the very soul of this community. Many in the area had personal relationships with some of the men who died. Firefighter James Earl Drayton was one of my former classmates.
Earl and I went from sixth grade at Columbus Street Elementary School through 12th grade at C.A. Brown High together. Despite all that time in school, we weren’t that close.
Earl was one of those guys who stayed pretty much to himself. Most of the time you hardly knew he was there. He kept a low profile and gave the impression he wasn’t someone to fool around with.
I was surprised to learn a few years after graduation that Earl had joined the fire department. Earl was never a guy to volunteer for anything when we were in school, so I found it strange he’d volunteer to put himself in danger and run into fires.
Eight or 10 years ago I saw Earl outside the West Ashley firehouse at Savannah Highway and Magnolia Road. I remember being impressed by how Earl had stuck it out in the department.
Not only had the brother made it — by that time most of my class was looking toward retirement — Earl had made it in a coveted position.
See, being a fireman in Charleston, especially for a black man, ain’t such a bad deal. The pay is decent, the hours aren’t bad — 24 hours on and 48 hours off — you get city benefits and the work isn’t hard, usually.
Make no mistake, being a fireman is no easy task. The June 18 Sofa Super Store blaze reminds us all just how much is required to do that job. Most days our guys face only grease and brush fires. Fully engulfed structures, fortunately, happen only occasionally. Since the tragedy, this community has shown a lot of love for its firefighters,. and I’m proud that Charleston has expressed its love for Earl and his brothers.
But wouldn’t it have been much sweeter had those guys tasted that love before they died? It was just over a year ago that Charleston firefighters asked the media to help them eliminate discrimination in the fire department. Members of the local firemen’s association asked me to write a story about the nepotism and favoritism they felt was so rampant in the department.
Discrimination against blacks in the fire department is old news. With 32 years, Earl had the most experience in the department of all those who died, but he held the lowest rank. Fire Chief Rusty Thomas has promoted a few blacks to the upper ranks in the past several years, but it took over 100 years before a black man, the late Chief Calvin Allen, became the department’s first black battalion chief.
Moreover, in a city that’s about 50 percent black, only about 20 percent of its firemen are. And the diversity gets more disproportionate as you go up the chain of command.
While it’s fitting that this community grieves its loss, as our grief subsides, perhaps we should take a more critical look at the fire department. Let’s not wait until others make the supreme sacrifice to pay them their due.