Herman Williams Jr., Baltimore City’s first Black fire chief who was commended for bravery during his lengthy career, died of complications of a stroke Saturday night at Springwell Assisted Living. He was 90 and formerly lived in Northwest Baltimore.
Mr. Williams served the city for 47 years under nine mayors. He worked as a firefighter, in the Department of Public Works and retired as fire chief in 2001.
“It was an honor to name Herman Williams fire chief,” former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said. “He was the consummate professional. He was respected locally and nationally. Making him chief was a source of pride to me personally.”
The fire chief also gained fame later in life through his son, Montel Williams, the national television talk-show host who spoke about his father instilling in him discipline and a love for books.
“My dad was a man whose shoes were truly too big ... to fill,” Montel Williams tweeted.
Current Baltimore Fire Chief Niles R. Ford said it would be an “understatement” to say Mr. Williams will be missed.
“Not only was he was an extraordinary mentor, but he was a dear friend & inspiration,” he tweeted.
Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott said Mr. Williams “embodied the true spirit of public service.”
“The difference he made blazing the trail for Black firefighters to serve in @baltimorefire and his unwavering commitment to our residents and the City of Baltimore will always be remembered,” Mr. Scott tweeted.
His daughter Marjorie Hines said of her father: “He was a strong man and a strong father. I watched him work three jobs at one time — he was a firefighter, a musician and he built us a home. "
Mr. Williams was born in New York City. He moved to Sandtown-Winchester as a teen, graduated from Frederick Douglass High School and earned a degree at the Community College of Baltimore County.
Before becoming a firefighter, he was a bass player at Block bars and at the Royal Theater. He also broke an occupational color barrier by becoming a streetcar motorman and bus driver for the old Baltimore Transit Co.
In a 2002 Sun interview, he recalled the abuse he endured from white passengers.
“He was among the first Black streetcar [and bus] drivers,” the story said. “People threw stones at his streetcar and spat on him when he was driving a bus. Two women even refused to get on his bus on Park Heights Avenue.”
Mr. Williams recalled the incident.
“It was on the 5 line,” he said. “I told the lady, `You might as well get on this one. There are three black guys driving behind me.’ You laughed at those things.”
Mr. Williams, a member of the Baltimore Urban League, recalled how that organization, which had been fighting discrimination in employment, asked “a bunch of guys” in 1953 to take the exam for the fire department.
“We all failed, 30, 35 guys,” he said. “And I’m telling you what was so idiotic about this was that it was a simple little IQ test: How much is one and one? Where is City Hospital? That kind of stuff.”
“The story made the newspapers and the reports hinted something fishy was going on. As a result, we were all called back to take the test again. This time, we all passed,” Mr. Williams said.
“I don’t know who behind the scenes got on that,” he said. Mr. Williams also added that he believed the help came from Mayor Thomas A. D’Alesandro Jr., who had courted the African American vote with support for civil rights when he was reelected in 1951.
The fire department job meant a $2,000 pay cut. He had been making $5,500 a year with the transit company.
On April 7, 1955, The Sun reported that he was the first Black fire department fighter to be decorated by the fire board. Mr. Williams rushed to help a boy with multiple injuries who had been struck by a hit-and-run driver.
In 1958 he was called to Cabin Branch Creek when a heavy crane went off a drawbridge. The driver was trapped and the tide was rising.
Mr. Williams and firefighter Andy Kovoski jumped into the water. Mr. Williams went under to free the trapped man’s foot which had lodged behind the steering column.
“I twisted his ankle hard. I was underwater but I could hear him scream. His foot came free. I shot up and spit out a mouthful of foul water. ... I suddenly realized something. ‘Andy, how the hell did I get out here? I can’t swim,’” Mr. Williams recalled.
The fire board awarded Mr. Williams a meritorious service bar.
“Bravery, hard work and a thick skin put Williams on the track to becoming chief. He would train rookies at the Fire Academy and police violations of the fire code with the Fire Prevention Bureau. The revered Fire Chief Thomas Burke supported and encouraged him,” a 2002 Sun profile said.
“But in 1979, when he was deputy chief, a step away from command of the department, he was summoned before a gathering of “big shot” politicos and told in so many words, like Brando in ‘On the Waterfront,’ ‘Kid, it’s not your night,’” the profile said.
Mr. Williams “went off to a rather pleasant exile” as chief of administrative services in public works department and then as commissioner of transportation. Mr. Williams said he liked these jobs.
“It was a real pleasure for me to ride through the city and see the grass cut,” he said. “Because my guys were doing that. Potholes were filled. Seeing bridges being built I signed the contracts for.”
Mr. Williams was thinking of retiring in 1992 when Mr. Schmoke said, “Why don’t you retire as chief of the fire department?”
Mr. Williams fought hundreds of fires during his 35 years with the Baltimore City Fire Department.
The death of a fireman [is] like a stab in the heart,” Mr. Williams said in 2002.
He recalled a terrifying February 1999 fire in a downtown high-rise building, the Charles Towers.
“I was driving down the Jones Falls Expressway, and when I got down to Maryland Avenue I could see it: Oh, my God.”
Smoke and flames billowed from the 15th floor of the 30-story apartment building.
The Morning Sun
“A lot of the tenants had rushed to the roof,” Mr. Williams said. “Then there was a fear people might want to start jumping. So we called in the [Maryland State Police] helicopters and lowered some men down to make sure everybody was OK.”
[ Rev. Dr. Bowyer G. Freeman, former Howard County NAACP president, dies ]
Mr. Williams led the fire service through a tumultuous eight years that included widespread budget reductions, staff cuts and station closings. Throughout his tenure, the city set record lows in fire deaths and the number of fires declined by nearly half.
He also led a city giveaway of 70,000 smoke detectors.
In 2003, an East 25th Street fire station complex was named in his honor.
“My father could make a good meatloaf, but his real specialty was crab cakes,” his daughter said. “And he loved making them for disabled veterans.”
Survivors include two daughters, Marjorie Hines of Hanover and Clolita Vitale of Lakewood, Florida; two sons, Herman Williams III of Baltimore and Montel Williams of Miami; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Marjorie White, died in 2017.
Plans for a funeral are incomplete.