It’s been 43 years since Jacksonville faced the federal lawsuit that forced the Fire Department to hire black firefighters — and the city’s still fighting over it. Last week, Senior U.S. Judge Harvey Schlesinger ordered settlement hearings on the 1971 discrimination case to be held April 23. That date will mark the second time that the federal court has tried to settle the case instead of ruling on whether the city is in violation of a consent decree the court signed back in 1982.
That year, in order to increase the number of black firefighters on the force, the city agreed to hire one African-American firefighter for every hired white firefighter until the department’s racial makeup matched that of Jacksonville itself. But then in 1992, the city halted that policy, determining that it had met its racial goals. The problem, the black firefighters allege, is that the city should have returned to court to be released from the agreement, but never did.
Afterward, unsurprisingly, the city’s hiring of black firefighters dropped dramatically. In addition to the hiring lawsuit, the city also faces a discrimination suit, which the U.S. Department of Justice joined, alleging discrimination in promotions and another lawsuit alleging that the city’s hiring and promotion practices create a hostile workplace for African-Americans.
Beyond the lawsuits, there’s also a nasty bile that seeps out from time to time. In 2006, while the Jacksonville Brotherhood of Firefighters, an organization of black firefighters, was meeting with the city to discuss ongoing issues, two black firefighters found nooses on their gear.
Black firefighters have long suspected that certain white firefighters get special help when it comes to readying for written promotional exams. In a deposition related to one of the lawsuits, a fire captain admitted that he held study sessions at his house for motivated firefighters in which questions from past exams were utilized. This year, an exam for lieutenant was suspended after allegations surfaced that the questions being prepared had been copied and given to certain (read: white) applicants.
After black firefighters asked the federal court in 2007 to rule that the city was in violation of the consent decree, there’ve been two rounds of settlement talks — in 2009 and in 2012.
During a hearing last year, fire chief Martin Senterfitt basically said he could either hire the best and be sued by black firefighters, or make sure the hiring is fair and be sued by white firefighters. But that shouldn’t be the issue if there are qualified white and black candidates.
Give it to Judge Schlesinger for believing decades of racial distrust and animus can all be talked away.