In 1974, when Tony J. Spencer became the ninth black firefighter in Annapolis, a white colleague frequently invited him and his wife over for dinner. It didn't take long until their friendship caught the attention of old-timers, who responded with disparaging racial jokes.
Times have changed at the Annapolis Fire Department.
Once an exclusively white, male organization, where firefighting was a career handed down from generation to generation, the department has grown in diversity and professionalism over the last two decades.
More women and blacks are members of the force than ever before. Racist nicknames aren't tolerated, and off-color jokes and stories of sexual adventures are no longer openly bandied about during the long lulls in between fire calls.
But the changes have been hard fought and slow, frustrating some firefighters and black leaders.
Seven years have passed since four black firefighters filed a federal suit charging discrimination in hiring, promotions and testing procedures. Among the racially biased practices alleged in the suit were unfair methods of hiring that favored white men and invalidated tests for promotions.
The city of Annapolis negotiated an out-of-court agreement in August 1986 with the Black Firefighters Association, which has been headed since then by Mr. Spencer. In settling the suit, the city promised to set up an aggressive recruiting and promotions program.
Within five years, the city pledged, it would increase the percentage of blacks in the fire department to reflect more accurately the percentage of blacks living in Annapolis. At the time of the suit, seven black firefighters were on the 100-member force. About 32 percent of Annapolis' residents are black.
Several black firefighters have been promoted in recent years, and the percentage of minorities has increased to about 12 percent of the 96-member department. But while praising the progress, Mr. Spencer says there's still plenty of room for improvement.
"What I feel is that, you can be busy, but still not be effective," he said. "I think we need a more aggressive, more effective approach."
Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights advocate who helped bring the 1985 suit, is more critical. He points to Claude E. "Shorty" Coates, the first black hired by the department in 1970, as an example of the lack of progress that's been made.
"He came in as the first black firefighter, and 22 years later he's still a firefighter," Mr. Snowden said. "I think that says volumes about the lack of affirmative action and equal opportunity for blacks. What would you say if you were at the same job without any promotion for 22 years?"
Only one black firefighter, Lt. Clarence Johnson, has been promoted to a command position. And the increase in black firefighters, from seven to 11, does not represent a substantial change, Mr. Snowden said. "It's not the same department it was 20 years ago," he said. "But when you look at the bottom line, the rate of promotions for African Americans and women, it speaks for itself."
The most dramatic difference in the department is the subtle change in attitudes, Mr. Spencer said. Younger firefighters have replaced the old-timers and brought a more open, professional approach toward their jobs, he said. There's still camaraderie in the fire stations, but the joking no longer includes sexist or racist references. Blacks and whites mingle easily on and off duty.
Mr. Spencer and Mr. Snowden met with Annapolis Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins last week to discuss stepping up the hiring and promotions of blacks. The mayor agreed to have Mr. Spencer and the department's other minority recruiters go through more extensive training to improve their techniques.
In the 18 years since he became the first black paramedic in Anne Arundel County, Mr. Spencer said he's seen a marked shift in attitudes and professional training. Even though the department was demoralized when allegations of firefighters having sex on duty were made public last year, he said its overall image has improved steadily.