In September of 1969, black and other firefighters of color of all ranks from municipalities across the United States; met in New York City for two days of discussion on the injustices that existed in the following categories: The recruitment of black youth into the fire service, firefighter-community relations (with special emphasis on relations with the residents of neighborhoods inhabited by blacks), inter-group relations, practices in fire departments, and the need to improve fire prevention programs in urban areas with the greatest need. That meeting was very productive and out of it was born the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters.

Black firefighters from Boston attended that meeting and brought back the information that a new association had formed whose purpose was to help them focus on the issues and concerns of their people and community. Later that year (1969), after much discussion and planning, the chapter of “The Boston Society of Vulcans” was formed. When the organization first developed, the Boston Fire Department (BFD) employed 2,100 firefighters, only 17 were black and 1 was Hispanic.

The chapter began to focus on issues of recruitment and prevention. In 1971, an investigation was being initiated by the justice department across the country, that focused on police and fire recruitment/employment. In 1972, Jim Whitted and twelve other black and Latino Vietnam veterans from Boston, scored a perfect 100% on the firefighter entrance exam. Despite being at the top of the list, they were never considered, or given a reason as to why. Mr. Whitted and the other veterans filed a complaint with the justice department, which initiated a state wide investigation into the city and state exam process in Massachusetts. It was later ruled by Judge Freedman that the civil service hiring process, in fact, had a discriminatory impact. It was discovered that: When applicants of color went to apply for exams (especially at fire stations), they were not given, or informed of study materials, applications were often not made available to them and if they were, their applications would end up misfiled or thrown in the trash; testing components were not job related; the exams could not adequately determine more qualified versus a non-qualified candidate; the exam was culturally biased; and the exam and recruitment activities were not open to all candidates regardless of race. 

The final decision of the judge: a mechanism for hiring had to be implemented under a parity formula. Two hiring lists had to be established, one of non-minority candidates and one of minority candidates. For every one white candidate(s) hired off the non-minority list, one candidate of color (1:1) had to be considered off the minority list for the Cities of Boston and Springfield (3 non-minority : 1 minority ratio for all other cities & towns). This ruling born what is known today as the Beecher Decree, which has affected police and fire departments throughout the state of Massachusetts. (To learn more about the Beecher Decree, click HERE.)

The decree was a stepping stone for many organizations across the country seeking to achieve employment equality in the public service sector. In 1976, a few individuals from the Boston area envisioned a local non-profit organization of their own. Collectively, Daniel Grant, Whitfield Jeffers, Charles Parris, Lloyd Phillips and Robert Powell, sought to strengthen the organization (Boston Society of Vulcans) that would not only oversee the continued implementation of the court ordered consent decree, but would grow to meet the ongoing needs of recruitment services, disparate treatment of black firefighters and the public safety concerns in communities of color.

In 1976, The Boston Society of Vulcans joined the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters (I.A.B.P.F.F.). The Society, adopted the IABPFF’s doctrine: PURPOSE & AIMS: To create a liaison between our Black Brothers and Sisters throughout the globe, to collect and evaluate data on all deleterious conditions incumbent in all areas where people of color exist, to compile information concerning the injustices that exist in the application of working conditions in the Fire Service, and to implement action to correct them. The Organization also sought to promote interracial progress throughout the Fire Service and to see that competent Blacks are recruited and employed as fire fighters, where ever they reside, and to aid in motivating our Black Brothers and Sisters to seek advancement to elevated ranks throughout the Fire Service.

In 1976 additionally, the first class from the consent decree entered into the fire academy and consisted entirely of black and Latino firefighters. From the ongoing efforts of the Vulcan Society and other black leaders from that time and organizations, such as the NAACP, the number of black and Latino firefighters grew from 18 in 1969, to more than 500 firefighters of diverse race and gender employed within the Boston Fire Department in the early 2000’s. In addition to our mission of making the Fire Service more representative of the diversity of Boston neighborhoods, the Vulcan Society now, also addresses the need for community safety education and programs for high-risk, low-income and bilingual populations through a range of services and programs provided throughout the city.

In 2003, Boston’s decree was vacated due to “parity” (BFD representing City’s racial makeup), however the job of the Vulcan Society is not finished. Diversity is drastically eroding within the ranks of the Boston Fire Department. Due to a growing and diverse population in Boston, where cultural customs and language barriers can impact safety concerns, we must not only continue to ensure that Boston maintains a diverse public safety force. This includes ongoing safety initiatives to expand and meet the needs of an increasing multi-lingual and diverse population. Our job and purpose will be needed for years to come……