Ronald C. Lewis, who served as the Richmond Fire Department’s first African-American chief and fought discrimination to secure equal opportunities for a generation of black firefighters, died Friday. He was 84.
Mr. Lewis headed the department from 1978 until his retirement in 1995, a period that saw the department dramatically reduce the number of fire deaths in the city and increase the number of black firefighters in its ranks and leadership.
“We’re one of the most diverse departments in the country today because of him,” said Melvin Carter, Richmond’s current chief of fire and emergency services.
In a city that was about half African-American, fewer than 15 percent of the department’s roughly 500 employees were black when Mr. Lewis arrived in November 1978. Only two held leadership positions. In 1979, Mr. Lewis promoted the first African-American, Arthur Page, to the post of deputy battalion chief. He also hired the department’s first black female firefighter, Barbara J. Hicks-Spring, that same year.
Tina Watkins, another hire of Mr. Lewis’ during his tenure, has ascended the department’s ranks over the past three decades, becoming the first African-American woman to attain the rank of battalion chief. Carter, who is black, recalls cold-calling Mr. Lewis as a 17-year-old who aspired to join the fire service. Mr. Lewis encouraged Carter to keep studying and pursue his dream. Then he hired him in 1987.
Today, about a third of the department’s 460 employees are black — a product of the work Mr. Lewis began four decades earlier, Carter said. “I wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for Chief Lewis,” he added.
Mr. Lewis began his career in the fire service in 1956 in Philadelphia, where he was born. Over 18 years with the department, he won several promotions, rising to the rank of battalion chief in 1974. That year, Mr. Lewis led a group of black firefighters who sued Philadelphia for discrimination in hiring and promotions. They won in federal court, and the number of African-Americans in the fire service there doubled in four years as a result, according to news reports from the time.
Mr. Lewis championed more advancement opportunities for black firefighters as a founding member of the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, serving as a regional vice president of the organization for four years and remaining active in other capacities during his career.
From afar, he aided early efforts by Richmond firefighters seeking equal opportunities in their department, said James “Duke” Stewart, who began working in the Richmond Fire Department in 1969. The two met at a conference in Roanoke a year later and became friends. As black firefighters in Richmond mulled a discrimination lawsuit of their own in 1974, Stewart called Mr. Lewis seeking counsel. He introduced him to the lawyer that ultimately took up the Richmond firefighters’ class-action lawsuit. Richmond hired Mr. Lewis in 1978 after a national search that saw him beat out more than 30 other applicants. Upon arriving at the department, he faced racism, resentment and insubordination at times, said Stewart, who worked closely with Mr. Lewis during his time as chief. Some employees even left the department, refusing to take direction from a black man.
“There were challenges because there were some who were just not willing to accept it,” Stewart said.
Despite the prejudice he was confronted with at times, Mr. Lewis led graciously. Carter and Stewart recall him mentoring employees from all backgrounds and living by a credo he’d often repeat: fair, firm and friendly.
In an interview with The Richmond News Leader about a year after his hiring, Mr. Lewis said that his “progressive” ideas about the fire service posed more of a challenge to leading the department than his race did. Mr. Lewis introduced a slew of changes. He brought in new equipment, including protective gear and breathing apparatus, that aided the department’s firefighters as they fought blazes. He also established the department’s first water rescue and hazardous materials teams.
Seeking to smother fire before it could erupt, Mr. Lewis kick-started community outreach and education efforts in Richmond, providing more than 7,000 smoke detectors to the city’s poorest residents and establishing a fire safety program for Richmond Public Schools students.
The efforts helped save lives. When Mr. Lewis began, the city saw an average of 18 fire-related deaths annually. By 1995, the number was down to as few as three or four. At the time of his retirement, he called the reduction his top accomplishment.
We honor you, Ronald Lewis.