FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Richard Ridley, Jr. still looks at home sitting at the kitchen table of Fire Station 1 off Main Street in downtown Fort Wayne. With one of his granddaughters on his lap, he’s surrounded by family and fellow firefighters as he recalls stories from 50 years ago. His first fire was the massive Wolf & Dessauer fire in February 1962.
“I had my first lesson on being careful. I was working on the roof and my leg fell through. I caught myself, but I learned to test first from that experience,” he said.
When Ridley joined the department in 1961, he wanted a good career to support his family. He didn’t think he’d be breaking down barriers and helping pave the way for future generations.
“I didn’t think about being the first at the time. It didn’t really strike me until after I started my process,” he said.
Ridley was the first African American to become a firefighter in Fort Wayne. Wednesday, the department and union honored Ridley with the inaugural Pioneer Award.
“In America, the climate then was of change. There was a lot going on in the 50s and 60s. There was a revolution because people were sick and tired of being sick and tired of being discriminated against,” Glynn Hines, the city councilman for Fort Wayne’s 6th District, said.
The racial tensions of the Civil Rights movement were spreading across the country.
“There were things taking place and changing very quickly around Fort Wayne as well,” said Roberta Ridley, Richard’s sister and head of the Fort Wayne African American Geneological Society.
The road to Ridley joining the fire department started with the election of John Nuckols, the first African American to be on city council, in 1959. Hines was nine years old at the time and remembered it being the talk of the barbershop.
“I didn’t understand all the dynamics at the time, other than we were going to be involved in change,” Hines said. “There were three black police officers, but no firemen. One of the challenges John and the community made to then mayoral candidate Paul Mike Burns was that they wanted at least one black fireman.”
That year’s election had a 75 percent voter turnout, Hines said, because of the “get out the vote” efforts of Nuckols’ supporters. Nuckols got around 3,100 votes to his opponent’s 1,800. Burns won the mayor’s office by 665 votes, Hines said.
“That 1,300 differential was large at that time. The inner city community is what made the difference. So, he had the leverage to request the mayor hire at least one black man,” he said.
It was around this time that Ridley came back to Fort Wayne from serving in the Army Airborne 101st Infantry Division. He went to college at International Business College in Fort Wayne, where he was the only minority in his class of 23 students. After graduating seventh in his class, he was the only one to not get a job in his field, Roberta Ridley said. He applied to the state police and didn’t hear back. That’s when the opportunity with the fire department presented itself.
“I was excited and anxious to get started,” Richard Ridley said.
Ridley easily passed through the application process and was sworn into the department by Mayor Burns on October 7, 1961.
“I expected that there was going to be some dissention when I came on. It didn’t take long to figure that out. I knew that after a while it would change,” Ridley said.
This wasn’t the first time Ridley was the “first.” He was the first African American to attend Bethlehem Lutheran School and Concordia Lutheran High School.
“For there to be change, someone has to be first. Someone has to stand up and take the shot and you survive it, that’s when things start moving forward,” Roberta said.
Ridley started his career with the fire department in fire prevention, not in an engine house.
“They didn’t want to share a bed with me,” he said.
His first fire response was four months later when the Wolf & Dessauer department store went up in flames.
“I was still in fire prevention at the time, but they called all the off-duty firefighters, so I went in,” he said.
Ridley wasn’t assigned to Station 3 until 1963 when the second African American, Marvin Eady, was hired.
First African Americans hired on the Fort Wayne Fire Department:
- Richard Ridley, Jr. – October 1961
- Marvin Eady- December 1963
- Milton “Corky” Turner – November 1974
- Genois Wilson – March 1975 (first African American woman)
- In December 1975, four additional African Americans joined the ranks.
“I went to the chief and told him that we can be stationed at the same engine house and share our bed,” Ridley said. “I was the ‘A shift’ and he was the ‘B shift,’ so we shared a bunk. When we worked in the night watch, we had to take a roll-away bed in there and we could only sleep on the roll-away bed. That lasted three or four years.”
A neighbor and fellow firefighter protested to the chief and that ended.
“Then we started serving with all the rest of the firefighters and they found out it wasn’t that bad,” Ridley said.
Through the resistance, Ridley remained stoic and became an exceptional firefighter. He rose through the ranks and retired as a district chief in 1985. He also developed the physical fitness program that the department still uses in part today.
“Richard’s story is an American History story,” Hines said. “In the history of America, there has been discrimination and there has been racism. Richard was the case of an individual who was given an opportunity and he took the opportunity and made the most of it. He endured. Not only did he endure, he passed on to his children the sense of pride it is to have a career in public safety as a fireman.”
Richard J. Ridley, Jr. FWFD Career Timeline (provided by Tony Ridley)
October 1961: Hired in Fire Prevention
February 1962: Called to first fire at Wolf & Dessauer department store
1963: Assigned to Station 3, which is now the Firefighters Museum
1971: Promoted to Captain
1973: Promoted to District Chief in the Academy
1974: Became affiliated Action Officer
1974/75: Developed department’s physical fitness program
1975: Elected Vice President Indiana Fire Instructors Association
1978: Transferred to combat division as District Chief 2
October 1985: Retired after 24 years on the department
Through all the adversity along the way, Ridley still says he was just doing his job.
“He said, ‘Well, I’ve got to feed my family. I’m not going to let what goes on there keep me from taking care of my family.’ I don’t know how he did it. I’m glad he did though,” Tony Ridley, Richard’s son, said.
Tony joined the Fort Wayne Fire Department in 1985 and just retired last June.
“He’s been a dad to a lot of people and a mentor to a lot of people,” Tony said. “I know there are men like him all through the United States that made differences for the communities they lived in for the African American populations. Without them, there wouldn’t be the 29-year retirement I just had. The career I just finished. That’s what I get from my dad and I love him for it.”
One of Richard’s brothers, his other son, Richard Ridley III, and three nephews also all became firefighters.
“It’s the family business, so-to-speak,” Kyle Hill, who joined the fire department in 2001, said. “My uncles are like super heroes to me.”
Geneori Hogan, District Chief of IT Administration, is also one of Richard’s nephews.
“I’m in the position I am in today because of him. He opened doors for me, my other cousins and other minorities as well. I’m grateful for the things he endured to make it possible for me to do something I always wanted to do growing up.”
Jim Ridley, Richard’s younger brother, joined the department in 1980 and retired as a captain in 2009. While on the department, he was the IAFF Local 124 union president and now is the Assistant to the General President for Education, Training and Human Relations for the International Association of Firefighters.
“I just think everything he did was exceptional,” he said. “He persevered. It would have been easy for him to lose his temper. He realized how important it was. He realized, ‘If I don’t do what I’m capable of doing, who is to say that the next person will come along and make it better?’ He just found a way to make it better.”
Marcus Ridley, Roberta’s son, became a Fort Wayne firefighter in 1997.
“That’s why I’m here today. Making sure that what he laid down for me and the rest of us, that I continue on. It’s very important to me,” he said.
Over the last few decades, diversity on the department has been declining. Minorities haven’t been hired on as quickly as they’ve been retiring.
“I don’t think minorities realize it’s a career that can advance you to other things,” Tony said.
Marcus added that a lot of kids don’t know becoming a firefighter is an option.
“They would come up to you as a minority firefighter and say, ‘I can’t believe you’re a firefighter. I never knew you could do this,’” he said. “Nothing would make me more proud than to see the next generation of minorities coming through and achieving and passing it on. That’s my duty, as I speak today, to get out there in the community and bring one or two more on. Let them know they can achieve it. It’s a beautiful job. It’s the best job in the world and it’s open to everyone,” Marcus said.
That concept is exactly what Chief Eric Lahey is focusing on in the department’s new strategy to increase diversity.
“Reach out to the fire department itself and find those people who have those personal relationships [with potential firefighters] and encourage them. Let them know there are opportunities on the Fort Wayne Fire Department for everyone,” Lahey said. “The job is not specific to any one race or gender. We know that people from all walks of life are very capable of doing this job.”
According to the department, of the 350 firefighters, 51 of them, or nearly 15 percent, are minorities:
- 25 African Americans (Four are women)
- 14 women (Four are African American)
- Six Asian men
- Six Hispanic men
“The problem we’ve had with diversifying the department is getting that message out that this opportunity exists to the minority community,” Lahey said.
That was evident, he said, six years ago when 900 people came to take the written test for a recruit class. Of those 900, fewer than a hundred were minorities.
“By law of averages we’re not going to end up with a diverse department with those kind of numbers showing up,” he said.
This year, leading up to hiring a class of firefighters next year, the department plans to go out to job fairs, colleges and other schools and community events to encourage more people in minority groups to consider the fire service.
“Those people exist throughout our community. We just have to find them,” Lahey said. “It’s a rewarding career. We get to give back to the community that gives us so much.”
The department’s Human Relations Committee is a big part of that outreach.
“We need to make sure it’s representative of all minorities and backgrounds and demographics. The way we can communicate and make sure we’re being inclusive with the people we hire is by engaging those individuals in the community,” Jeremy Bush, president of Fort Wayne Professional Firefighters Local 124, said.
Bush said the union partners with the city and fire administrations to help the department hire people who represent the community.
“We want to make sure we’re hiring the best people and those individuals who reflect our community, those qualified minorities. It’s important for our job. It’s important for what we do,” Bush said. “It’s important for all of us to know where we came from to know the direction we need to head in the future.”
It’s also important to not lose sight of the barriers Richard Ridley, Jr. broke down 50 years ago and the legacy he left behind.
“It helps us realize why it’s important to keep fighting for diversity in this department and not just diversity, but equality for everyone,” Lahey said.
Now 77, sitting back in an engine house, Ridley credits his father, Richard Ridley, Sr., for the strength and courage to endure and overcome.
“He told me to do the best that you can do. Just be courteous to everybody. I knew who I was and it didn’t make any difference what anyone else thought. They’d eventually see who you are. I just did what he taught me. Have faith in yourself,” Ridley said.