TFD Remembers City's First African American Firefighters
TULSA, Oklahoma - In honor of Black History Month, the Tulsa Fire Department is taking time to recognize six men who became pioneers for change.
The Tulsa Fire Department hired Cletus Q. Stephens in 1956, alongside Henry Collier, Milton Goodwin, Clifford Horn, Robert Shanks and Merle Stripling. They were the city’s first African American firefighters.
"My dad was a firm, fair, hard-working man," Stephens’s son, Don Stephens said. "As a kid, me and my brother would go visit him at the station. We just thought it was so cool - the trucks and firemen. But really, it wasn't until I came on the job in ‘77 how they really opened the doors."
The six men started at Station 19 at Mohawk and Peoria.
"They picked the right six guys,” Stephens said. “At the time, the climate to do what they had to do, with all the adversity they faced and still be able to control their temper and deal with everything they had to deal with, it took a special kind of man to do that."
Tulsa Fire Officer Rodney Tisdale said the City hired the six men as a step toward racial equality.
Their hiring opened the doors for other minorities to become firefighters as well, but the first six men faced big obstacles, including a segregated station - the bay divided the black and white firefighters.
"I remember my dad always said they could clean the bathrooms up but they couldn't use but one," Stephens said.
The original Station 19 is gone now but Tisdale said Station 18 was built with the same layout.
"This is the side where our white firefighters would sleep, and then they had their own bathrooms," he said.
Tisdale said the black firefighters stayed on a separate side, sharing one bathroom and one shower. That same area at Station 18 is now used as the Captain’s Headquarters.
"A lot of people on the job still don't know why the stations are built like this, and this is a historical building," Tisdale said.
Stephens said, "They have come a long way. Still have a ways to go, and hopefully, we will all get there as a city, state, country and a nation, but there is still a lot of work to be done."
For Stephens, the story of his father is one of a pioneer, an important part of Tulsa's history that he hopes will never be forgotten.