When Charles R. Thomas Sr. graduated from Baltimore's fire academy in 1954 as part of the third class to include blacks, the city's Fire Department didn't allow black firefighters to use the same firehouse toilets as their white counterparts.
Fifty-one years later, Baltimore extended one of the department's highest honors to Thomas, a leader in the struggle for equal rights for black firefighters throughout his career.
The city officially renamed Engine Company 36 on Edmondson Avenue and Bentalou Street - where Thomas served for 22 years - the Charles R. Thomas Sr. Engine Company during a ceremony attended by about 200 well-wishers yesterday. It is the third city firehouse named after a black firefighter.
"I was surprised because they usually do this for people who have already died," Thomas said, who is in his early 80s. "When they have buildings named after you when you are still around, it's quite an honor."
Sitting in his living room decorated with numerous firefighting awards, Thomas appreciates how far the Baltimore department has come - and where it still needs to go to reach racial equality.
When Thomas first joined the Fire Department after serving in the Army during World War II and working other jobs, he recalls being overjoyed that the city finally allowed blacks to join. From childhood, Thomas had dreamed of riding on the fire engine and using the "cool equipment." He was one of 20 blacks in his class. But even after he made the grade, it wasn't always easy.
Thomas and Lawrence Buynum - another African-American firefighter who served in Engine Company 36 a half-century ago - said the treatment they received at the West Baltimore firehouse was better than at most other fire companies. But the department could be an inhospitable place for blacks.
Racism "was all underground because when we fought the fires and rode in the trucks, you wouldn't think there were a better group of guys," Thomas said.
Other times, though, the discrimination was more open.
"Are you kidding me? If you were black you wouldn't want to be there," Thomas said. During fire school, when cadets would go to different fire stations, the white firefighters would never share their equipment. This forced black firefighters to respond to fires with not much more than their rubber overshoes and wool jackets, said James Crockett, president of the city's Board of Fire Commissioners, who graduated from the academy with Thomas.
"The white firefighters wouldn't speak to you even though they had a responsibility to teach you how to fight fires, and they were reluctant even though it would save lives," Crockett said.
Despite the discrimination, Thomas and other black firefighters were not inspired to act until the firefighters union rejected their admission.
A group that included former Baltimore Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. - who also graduated with Thomas and has a firehouse named after him - used to meet at Crockett's house to discuss serving in a department that openly wanted nothing to do with them.
These meetings led to the creation of the Social Association of Firefighters, and the members voted Thomas their leader. The black firefighters fought and won admittance into the union in 1961 after Thomas met in New York with officials of the AFL-CIO, which sponsored the union, and explained the situation in Baltimore. AFL-CIO officials threatened to end their relationship with the union unless all races were admitted - and the union caved.
The union tried to exploit the situation, though, by initially charging black firefighters back dues for the years they served in the force but had been denied entry into the union, Thomas said.
"I said, 'Hell, no!' to that," Thomas said. "That would have made each firefighter have to pay a large sum of money. Eventually, the black firefighters only had to pay $5 out of pocket for the dues," Thomas said.
Thomas' unwillingness to accept what was the status quo for blacks in America at the time is what made him such a good leader, said Crockett and Williams. The three men have remained close friends.
"Charlie spent most of his time trying to better the lot for African-Americans, sometimes at the expense of helping himself become a high-ranking officer in the Fire Department," Williams said.
Williams frequently turned to his friend for advice while he served as Baltimore's first black fire chief from 1992 to 2001.
Just last spring, the issue of diversity in the Fire Department re-emerged amid reports of Baltimore's first all-white fire academy class since the department was integrated.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, who called Thomas a "pioneer in the fight for equality" in the Fire Department during yesterday's ceremony, said changes have been made in hiring to avoid a repeat of such a class.
"Presently we have more [African-American] firefighters than ever in the department," O'Malley said.
Crockett, who leads a board picked by the mayor, said significant wounds remain from last spring, and he agreed with Thomas that black firefighter organizations need to remain vigilant.
"People are still angry with the state of diversity in the Fire Department," he said.
Today, the 300-member Vulcan Blazers has replaced the Social Association of Firefighters as a watchdog for equal rights in the department while also serving as a social organization for black firefighters.
Thomas remains active in the firefighting community through the Blazers and its parent organization, the International Association of Professional Black Firefighters, which he also helped establish.
"He was the leader and the person who never lost sight of our goals," said Vulcan Blazers President Lloyd Carter.