The Vulcan Society
The Vulcan Society
The Vulcan Society was established in 1940 by a group of Black firefighters who were bound by their skin color, heroism, and opposition to the blatant segregating practices of the early FDNY. The organization was found and guided by Chief Wesley A. Williams. Appointed in 1919, Williams defied all odds by rising up the ranks to become the first African American Chief in the New York City Fire Department. The man, affectionately known as “The Chief,” had encouraged the men to unite and fight for their inalienable rights as paid firefighters regardless of their race.
He used his words to rouse the black men into standing up for themselves and their fellow brethren. “Are we mice or are we men?” asked Williams to a group of forty or so black firemen. They were all suffering the same Jim Crow-like conditions in their perspective firehouses. “You owe it to your children to fight until we are successful!” he pleaded to the frustrated crowd. “Men, lets form a society,” he finally stressed as the ultimate solution to challenging the systemic racism and injustice that plagued the entire department.
The men heeded The Chief’s message of unity by forming a society that has withstood the test of time. The name Vulcan is believed to derive from the Roman God of Fire, Volcanus. Brothers James Strachan and Will Chisolm are credited with creating the bylaws, constitution and early leadership of the young organization. Williams had decided, however, to never hold any official position in the Society. Instead, he used his final decade in the FDNY to groom the younger generation on the political process and inner workings of the fire department.
He was the grandson of an escaped slave, who traveled through Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad to find freedom in New York City. And he was the son of the chief Red Cap at Grand Central Station, who had earned honest connections with some of the country’s most influential figures like ex-president Theodore Roosevelt. Together, the first and second generation Williams’ instilled in the third, among other things, fortitude, faith, strength, savvy, charisma and pride. The same virtues that are, in fact, what make a man or woman a Vulcan today.
By the time he retired in 1952, as a Battalion Chief, Wesley Williams was considered one of the FDNY’s most influential people. He demanded respect, from day one, even when none was given. In fact, he literally put the fight in the word firefighter. The young “probie” often resorted to his impressive brawn when confronted with racism and hatred in the firehouse. But, as he grew older and wiser, he learned to rely more on his brain to challenge the status quo. It was the latter of the two attributes, in fact, that ultimately propelled Williams forward. “The Chief” would go on to pioneer unchartered territory for blacks by shattering all myths about his people’s inability to heroically lead others through the smoke and fire.
Vulcans pay homage to all those who came before them by smiling in the face of adversity. Perhaps some of the greatest lessons of perseverance are found in the lives of the two men who came before Wesley Williams:
William Nicholson (1898) was the first person of color to be hired by the FDNY. He was assigned to Engine Co. 6 in Brooklyn and was immediately detailed to the Veterinary Unit. Nicholson never actually worked in the firehouse because the Job deemed him better fit to work with animals than with people. He shoveled manure and tended to the Fire Horses until he retired in 1912 with a firefighter’s pension.
John H. Woodson (1914) was assigned to Hook and Ladder 106 in Brooklyn and was later transferred to various other companies throughout his 22-year career. He was publicly acknowledged and awarded for making a death-defying rescue of a mother and her baby, trapped in a burning building.
Ironically, it was Nicholson who displayed the first gesture of a Vulcan by writing a letter to Wesley Williams after learning that he had just graduated “probie” school. In the words penned to Williams, Woodson included the first three things that a veteran attempts to pass on to the rookie-
Robert O. Lowery
Was appointed Fire Commissioner by Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1966. He would become the first black fire commissioner of any major U.S. city.
Served 33 years in the department. He became the 2nd black Fire Commissioner when Mayor Edward I. Koch appointed him so in 1978.
Robert R Turner II (1978-present)
Was appointed First Deputy Fire Commissioner by Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. Turner carries on the proud legacy set by his father who was a very well respected and loved chief in the department.
She was among the first group of women hired by the department in 1982. At the time of her promotion to lieutenant in 2002 there were only 6 black female firefighters in the city.
The first woman elected President of the Vulcan Society. Wilson’s commitment to the fight for inclusion and diversity in the FDNY also includes a term as President of the United Women Firefighters association. Her rendition of the Star Spangled Banner is but one more example of her dedication to calling on the best of the American spirit.
The Vulcanettes (1966-present)
Is an organization by and for the wives, widows and daughters of the vulcan members. The better-half of the society was established to help heal during times of grief; provide community service and outreach; and, create a more complete sense of fire family.
Today, the Vulcan Society consists of members in every rank and file in the FDNY. The Firefighter, EMT, and Fire Inspector are, therefore, entrusted with upholding the highest standards of excellence set by those who came before them.
The Society has always been committed to the fight for equality and fairness in the New York City Fire Department with only one objective in mind: to help make the best fire department in the world better!
Researched with loving dedication by Ihsan Scott
Black Smoke Black Skin
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