In 1973 six black men filed a class action lawsuit in the US District Court, Southern District, Eastern division, against Columbus city officials for racial discrimination in the hiring of firefighters. The city was found guilty of employing practices that “established prima facia showing of racially adverse impact by city officials employment practices for firefighters.” Knowing the trajectory of our history allows us to conclude that there were several barriers to the recruitment and hiring of African Americans as firefighters and the court based its findings on easiest observable obstacles to African American employment in the fire department. What they didn’t, or couldn’t, account for – in a document based on constitutional precepts- are the systemic obstacles that retard our progress: low high school graduation rates, low family employment and higher dishonorable military discharges. Despite these conditions the few African American firefighters in the department had an excellent record of service and they created the first initiatives to actually recruit other African Americans to take the test in 1973.   In the late 19th century Columbus had a “colored contingent” stationed at Oak St. and Mable Ave. Sixteen more black firefighters were appointed in 1935 when the mayor made good on an agreement to hire black firefighters if he received the support of the black electorate in the mayoral election. At the time of the federal class action lawsuit in 1973, commonly referred to as Dozier v Chupka, Columbus had a fire force of 821 men on active duty - 20 were African American. The inception of the lawsuit developed from the dismal results from the applicant test.   Prior to the test, two African American firefighters, Lem Ferguson and Russell Dandridge, using their own resources, and with the help of the Columbus Metropolitan Area Community Action Organization (CMACAO), began recruiting blacks to apply for the fire department. They made presentations to church and civic groups that significantly increased the black test applicants from previous levels. The application process required a written aptitude test, a physical capability test, and a background review. The court found that some of the features of the process created a disparate impact on black applicants.   Applicants were required to have a high school diploma but a survey of then current firefighters found that some did not possess this requirement. The fact that that firefighters who didn’t possess a high school diploma, or its equivalent, but continued to perform the duties of a firefighter brought into question the need for the standard. At the time black men averaged less than 12 years of education. The court also found that a review of arrest records, because of an “absence of evidence establishing that the manner of use of such records was sufficiently related to job performance to overcome its discriminatory effect where use of such records discriminated against black applicants.” Veterans’ preference points were also seen as having a disparate impact due to the legacy of black service men receiving a disproportionate percentage of dishonorable discharges. In sum, the court found that “Even if the combined scores of written examination, physical agility test, and personal interviews were accurate predictors of performance of firefighter applicants at training academy, such showing was inadequate to justify use by city of such predictors which were prima facia racially discriminatory in absence of other evidence directly relating predictor to fire fighter’s job.”   None of the original plaintiffs, Eddie Dozier, Charles Wilson, Adrien Burks, Daniel Moon, John Starnes and Eddie Brown, were given appointments as a result of the court decision. From 1975 to 1986 (the first black woman was hired in 1977) Columbus hired firefighters on the basis of one black recruit for every white recruit. The local chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters intervened in 1986 and the court mandated that the quota of African American recruits would maintain a 23.9 percent of all firefighters on the department. The court order was abandoned in 1993 when two white applicants contested the decision as discriminatory. It is important to remember that court ordered affirmative action had been under assault from its inception. Emphasis on the idea of  “court ordered affirmative action” is important here because actions taken affirmatively to give whites (particularly white males) access to opportunity have always existed. African Americans have had to rely on the judiciary to enforce an articulated principle of fair and balanced accommodation when the society at large would not.   Jobs in public safety require competence on a variety of levels. Mastering the technology of fire suppression and emerging paramedical training are primary to the success of a journeyman firefighter. A candidate must be capable, both physically and mentally, to withstand the stresses of the job. A firefighter must be able to work in a team and individually to accomplish the goals in any emergency and non emergency situation. All the test components are designed to narrow the field to those candidates showing the greatest potential to become Columbus Firefighters. With a history of 35 years of affirmative action behind us, we must ask ourselves what lessons were learned about the qualifications of the firefighters that have worn the uniform of a Columbus Firefighter? Was there a demonstrable difference in the work efficiency between the white firefighters and black firefighters hired under affirmative action? The fact of the matter is that this issue is purposefully avoided because of the apparent discontinuity between the theory that affirmative action was responsible for lesser qualified people being hired and the reality that there essentially was no difference in the work efficiency of black and white firefighters.

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