Trailblazing Black Jacksonville firefighters experienced racism, sexism on the job

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the dozens of Black firefighters that work in Jacksonville today, there are four trailblazers that opened the door.

They endured racism and sexism as the first Black men and women to work for Jacksonville Fire and Rescue after the Reconstruction era.

Glenda Hopkins, Alonza Bronner, George Smith and Wanda Butler were all firefighters in Jacksonville serving for decades.

Even though they opened doors for minorities at JFRD, they say there is still more work to be done.

In 1969, Smith became the first Black person to join JFRD. One year later, Alonza Bronner became the second.

At the time Smith and Bronner said they did not feel welcomed by their fellow white firefighters.

Smith joined JFRD after serving 10 years in the Army.

“They were used to saying certain words around firefighters, and when I came on the job I would never aggressively attack but I would ask them what do they mean? Slang words. The [explative] word,” said Smith, who worked for JFRD for 24 years.

“You were working with individuals who did not want you there. A lot of the mindset was you had no business there. You are scared of fire, you are afraid of heights, whatever you could think of to try to put us down,” said Bronner who served for 33 years as an engineer.

A couple of years later, a consent decree required JFRD to hire one black firefighter for every one white firefighter to maintain equality.

Then in 1979 Butler and Hopkins joined the fire department together.

Hopkins lost a loved one in a house fire and was inspired to be a leader in the fire department but work was challenging.

“My first station was No. 2 down on Main Street and I couldn’t get those guys to talk to me when I walked in the fire station. Nobody uttered a word,” Hopkins said. “When the alarm went off they told me put your equipment on that apparatus and let’s go. During that time we would ride on the back of the fire truck and hold on and my equipment was flying down the street and we got to the fire and I didn’t have anything to put on other than my uniform.”

Hopkins says the men wouldn’t eat with her and violated her privacy.

“When everybody would go to bed they would shine the light to see what it was I was wearing to bed. It was horrible. It was horrible,” Hopkins said.

“We’re both going to heaven because we have already been through hell,” Butler said. “They put me in stations with men that had no problems exposing themselves to me they would cover my gear in vaseline, put water in my boots, take the slats out of my bunk so that when I went to bed you fall through to the floor. It was nothing for them to insult me.”

Butler said on some nights her husband would come to work to protect her from the taunting.

Butler, Hopkins, Bronner and Smith found themselves battling fires, saving lives and fighting for equality at the same time.

The firefighters found out other minorities throughout the country were enduring similar hardships at their fire stations as well. Other Black Americans that helped each other and white firefighters who didn’t care about race or gender, they simply wanted to see all firefighters be successful.

“As you went along you had people that had no problem working with you,” Bronner said. “To not want a person to do a job because of there race is asinine. The race of a person will not determine if they will save you or your life or your property. Race has nothing to do with it.”

Each of the four firefighters doesn’t regret serving in Jacksonville and enduring the pain that opened doors for others. They taught generations of men and women how to be firefighters and save lives.

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