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CFD's 'Lewis Class' graduates -- 15 years after 1st exam, discrimination lawsuit

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Fifteen years after he first took the exam, Robert Herron graduated with the Chicago Fire Department's Firefighter/EMT class.

Herron is one of 86 African-American men and women who graduated Thursday following a successful discrimination lawsuit. In 1995, a group of African-American men and women now known as the "Lewis Class" passed the Chicago Firefighter Department exam. However, because of how the exam was scored, most African American candidates were passed over for jobs.

They filed a discrimination lawsuit, and more than a decade later, the U.S. Supreme Court mandated those still interested in firefighting get a second chance. In August 2011, a judge ordered the city to hire 111 African Americans who qualified. Out of the 111 in the Lewis Class, 86 of them graduated on Thursday morning.

The ceremony was held at the Grand Ballroom in Navy Pier. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago attended.

"This is what is meant when the arc of history always bends towards justice," said Emanuel during the ceremony.

"We used to sit there and watch the firefighters, waiting for them to call so they can ride out to hear the fire sirens. Now I will be able to live that dream," said graduate Marvin Jones.

"I am so proud of him. He grew up without a father. Where you grew up or your background doesn't make a difference. If you want to be something, you can do it," said Sharon Goree, sister.

Firefighter Mark Wallace, 57, was the oldest in the class. His father witnessed his accomplishment.

"I'm ready to go on the heavenly gates now," said John H. Wallace, father.

"I still feel like I'm in a dream. It hasn't actually hit me that I'm a firefighter," Mark Wallace said.

Firefighter Byron Smith was able to share this day with his granddaughter.

"It's been a long time coming, a lifelong dream of mine to become a firefighter," said Smith.

Some African-American firefighters who rose through the ranks fought to rectify past injustices and put the department on a new path forward.

"I am so honored to have been the monitor over this class. They are great honestly. They inspire me," said Capt. Annette Nance Holt.

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