Charles R. Thomas Sr.

City firefighter battled for racial equality in the department and had a firehouse named after him

March 06, 2010|By Jacques Kelly

Charles R. Thomas Sr., a retired Baltimore City firefighter who was a voice for civil rights and racial harmony within his department, died of heart disease Feb. 23 at his Govans home. He was 86.

Fire officials held him in such high regard they named the West Baltimore firehouse where he served for nearly 23 years in his honor.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Mount Street, he was a graduate of the old J.C. Briscoe General Vocational School. In an interview, he said that as a child, he dreamed of riding a fire engine and using what he called "cool equipment."

During World War II, he served in the Army in Europe and fought in the Battle of the Bulge, among other places. He left military service as a sergeant.

He worked for a local pharmacy before applying for admission to the Fire Department as it was beginning to admit African-Americans. In 1954, he was in the city's third class of fire academy graduates that included blacks. That year, the department still did not allow black firefighters to use the same firehouse toilets as their white counterparts.

He also faced other issues. During his time in fire school, cadets would go to different fire stations on Saturdays for practice. According to a 2005 article in The Baltimore Sun, white firefighters would not share their equipment, forcing black cadets to respond to calls in civilian clothes.

Friends recalled that Mr. Thomas fought in famous Baltimore fires, including the 1955 Tru-Fit clothing store fire on East Baltimore Street, as well as numerous blazes along the waterfront and in the city's industrial sections.

"Charlie was one of a kind," said former Fire Chief Herman Williams. "He spent his time bettering the lot of minorities in the Fire Department, in Baltimore and in other cities."

The former chief said he recognized Mr. Thomas' leadership ability. "He was relentless," he said, adding that his unwillingness to accept the status quo for blacks was what made him such a good leader.

"He was a modest person," Chief Williams said. "You could put Charlie out there to fight an issue, and he would take all the heat. When Charlie spoke, people listened. He went on to enjoy the respect of many mayors."

The union included many white firefighters who did not welcome black members, so Mr. Thomas founded another organization, the Social Association of Firefighters.

The black firefighters fought and eventually won admittance into the other union. In the early 1960s, Mr. Thomas went to New York City and met with officials of the AFL-CIO, which sponsored the union. After the conditions in Baltimore were explained, the AFL-CIO officials threatened to end their relationship with the union unless all races were admitted.

That situation resolved, he faced another hurdle. In the 2005 interview, he recalled that the union tried to exploit the situation by initially charging black firefighters back dues for the years they served in the department but had been denied entry into the union.

"I said, 'Hell, no!' to that," Mr. Thomas recalled. "That would have made each firefighter pay a large sum of money. Eventually, the black firefighters only had to pay $5 out of pocket for the dues."

"He worked for others, sometimes at the expense of helping himself become a high-ranking officer in the Fire Department," said Chief Williams, adding that after Mr. Thomas retired, he brought him back as a consultant. "I needed someone like him around me."

Then-Mayor Martin O'Malley called Mr. Thomas a "pioneer in the fight for equality" during a ceremony in 2005 that renamed Engine 36 at Edmondson Avenue and Bentalou Street in Mr. Thomas' honor.

Mr. Thomas remained active in the firefighting community through the Vulcan Blazers and its parent organization, the International Association of Professional Black Firefighters, which he also helped establish.

Services were held Wednesday.

Surviving are his daughter, Sarvilla Pope of Gaithersburg; a son, Charles R. Thomas Jr. of Baltimore; a sister, Grace Mason of Baltimore; three grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His wife of 61 years, the former Clara Slowe, died in 2002.

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