Wesley Augustus Williams (1897-1984) was born in Harlem to Lucy Metrash and James Henry Williams, Chief of the Red Caps in Grand Central Terminal. He’d been inspired as a boy by Sam Battle’s successful struggle to join the NYPD as its first Black patrolman. Williams studied and trained rigorously, passing all tests with high marks. He received a perfect score on the physical, an achievement won only once before in FDNY history.
His first assignment in 1919 was to Engine 55 in the heart of Little Italy, located at 363 Broome Street (Broome/ Mott.) Upon learning that they would be joined by a Black firefighter, the captain and members of Engine 55 requested transfers to other stations, which were denied.
Wesley faced harsh and continual harassment from the all white crew; at one point, he was abandoned inside a burning building by fellow firefighters. Williams persevered, making lieutenant in 1927, the first Black man to become an officer. Together with other Black firefighters, he established the Vulcan Society to address racial segregation in the FDNY. He retired in 1952 with the rank of battalion chief.
Today the FDNY honors him through the annual presentation of the Chief Wesley Williams Medal for Valor.
by Imani Vieira
Wesley Williams Integrates Engine 55 – Tenement Museum
Image 1: FDNY Museum
Image 2: New York Public Library