DES MOINES, Iowa -- In August of 1982 the NAACP filed a lawsuit against the City of Des Moines to hire more black fire fighters. The city would hire five in the fall.
“Race was a big issue at the time,” said Eddie Davis, hired in the class of 1982. “There were individuals that didn’t want black people on the fire department.”
Eddie Davis, Steve Carter, Copeland Francis, Pete Jackson and John Long represented a chance at diversity for the department. At the time the department had 311 members and only one was black.
According to Davis, before he got the job he got some valuable advice from a mentor,”'You know they want to take your job.' Yeah I know that. He’d tell me 'Don’t let them do it.'”
The city was forced to hire black firefighters and there was talk that they were under qualified.
“(Laughs) They can say whatever they want, evidently some other people thought I was good enough to do the job,” said Davis.
That conversation ended when Davis received the highest grades of any of man in his class.
He graduated from training in January of ’83, ready to fight flames and prejudice.
“I’d walk into a house ... once into a house. Once on the street. Once on the street with a drunk. I’ve been called nigga a few times and of course I’d laugh because I’m not a nigga,” said Davis.
Davis didn’t fit in, he stood out. In his 23 years with the department he moved up the ranks fast by focusing on one simple principle.
“Go do your job. You may have a kitchen fire. You may have a garage fire, car fire. You may have a fully involved structure. It's all about doing your job,” said Davis.
Doing his job, Davis succeeded at handling the heat but also managed to rekindle hope for those who followed.
“We understood not only to ourselves, to our families and to the examples of other young blacks or other minorities to look at themselves and say I can do that ... I can do that,” said Davis.
The new hire class of ‘82 was ushered in by a lawsuit to serve the city of Des Moines but it was an internal fire that fueled them.
“I did my job in the face of racism,” said Davis.
That class of was historic in many ways. Not only did they hire five black fire fighters, they also hired the first woman and first Asian firefighter within the department.
There are currently 20 black firefighters in the department.