Fairfax African American firefighters: Reaching out from within

July 3, 2013

Ron Deskins, 66, said he was only the fifth black firefighter hired by Fairfax County when he joined the fire department in 1973.

Growing up in Arlington, Deskins said, firefighting services were segregated. His father worked for the only African American firehouse there during the 1950s. “I did not even know there were white firefighters,” he said. “I only saw some for the first time when there was a very large fire in my neighborhood and they had to call some in to help.”

Remembering his first year in a nonsegregated fire department, Deskins said, “It was kind of an isolated feeling not seeing another brown face for weeks or even months at a time.”

In 1975, Deskins helped found the Northern Virginia Minority Firefighters Combined, a group of mostly African American firefighters who met regularly to support each other.

“There were eight of us that first year, and as you can imagine, there were issues that many of us shared,” he said. “We started the group as a way to network and address those common issues.”

In 1984, the Northern Virginia Minority Firefighters Combined became the Progressive Firefighters of Fairfax County. That organization still exists, headed by its president, Charles Pullen, 50.

“I became a Fairfax County firefighter in 1984,” Pullen said. “And things hadn’t changed all that much. I was the only black firefighter at Station 19 in Lorton when I first started, and there were still less than 100 of us total out of a department of about 800 at that point.”

He said the department has changed a lot in the past 30 years. Early in his career, he said, there was rampant racial prejudice, and many African American firefighters were passed up for certain types of training essential for promotion.

“That was, and still is, one of our organization’s main goals,” he said. “To make sure that anyone otherwise qualified gets the opportunity to participate in all the preferred qualifications within the department that enable firefighters to advance.”

Pullen said the organization also works in more subtle ways, such as helping young black men become acclimated to firehouse culture.

“To give you an example, when I first came in, all the guys in my station were into NASCAR and listened to country music,” he said. “It was certainly a culture shock, but the funny thing is that I got interested in bull-riding and now I enjoy watching it myself.”

Today, Pullen said, there are 240 African American firefighters — 218 men and 22 women — in the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, which employs about 1,100 fire and rescue personnel.

“When I came in as a 19-year-old kid, the Progressive Firefighters helped to mentor me,” he said. “They helped me to adjust into the department and helped me to navigate the system. It was very reassuring to have people you could reach out to that had faced the same obstacles,” said Pullen, whose rank is captain II and who recently started a new position as the department’s recruitment officer.

Captain II Willie F. Bailey remembers a cultural transition as well. He was grateful for the organization’s help when he joined the department in 1991.

“I grew up in Del Ray back during a time when no one but blacks lived there,” he said. “I totally understand young black recruits that grew up in that type of environment. They may be used to dealing with only fellow blacks for their whole life, and then they are thrown into a firehouse where they may be the only one. The Progressive Firefighters helped me to adjust to that by saying, ‘Let us know if you want to talk about it.’ They were actually there for me even before I became a firefighter by reaching out to my community.”

The organization, which has about 150 members, holds toy drives, coat drives, and back-to-school drives for backpacks and haircuts, focusing on areas such as Gum Springs and Baileys Crossroads.

“It’s a great feeling to know that these guys like Ron [Deskins] were there for me and that I can now be there for them,” Bailey said.

Deskins retired from the Fire and Rescue Department in 2007 but considers himself a lifelong member of the Progressive Firefighters.

“We are still not a racially blind society just because we now have a black president of the United States,” he said. “We still aren’t quite there yet. We have come quite a long way, but there is still much to do, and I am proud and very pleased with the fact that this organization is still out there and making a difference.”

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