Crawford Smith and Aldon Reed wanted to change a system which they believed unfairly discriminated against them and hundreds of other minorities who were denied an opportunity to become a Chicago firefighter.

Crawford Smith and Aldon Reed wanted to change a system which they believed unfairly discriminated against them and hundreds of other minorities who were denied an opportunity to become a Chicago firefighter.

The 7th U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that the city must hire 111 African American firefighters and pay damages to an estimated 6,000 other applicants who were denied employment due to a discriminatory Fire Department exam administered in 1995.

“I am very surprised and pleased to get this result,” Smith told the Defender following the ruling. “I had given up (on the case) because it took so long.”

The ruling is as a result of a test that was supposed to measure the aptitude for firefighting. Those who scored a 64 or below was determined unqualified. Applicants were informed by fire officials that those who scored above that benchmark number that while they passed, the department would selectively hire the top 1,800 who scored 89 or above.

Smith, 35, said he was one of the applicants who took the exam and even received a letter in the mail saying he passed the test. But like many other Black applicants, he was not hired.

He later discovered that additional qualified African American applicants also shared his  plight.

“We were disappointed about it,” Smith said. “I felt the Chicago Fire Department should have hired the best qualified candidates.”

Reed, 40, who is currently employed as an engineer in suburban Justice, never doubted he was qualified to be a firefighter due to his extensive military background as a flight engineer and member of the Navy’s search and rescue unit during the Persian Gulf War.

“I had been doing a firefighter’s job in the military,” Reed said. “I thought being a veteran along with the skills I had would work in my favor.”

During a six-year period – from 1996 to 2002 – the city hired more than 1,000 firefighters using the results of a test in a manner that excluded what were believed to be at the time qualified African Americans.

Although the city had knowledge of the exclusions, the test results were still used to hire majority white applicants.

The test was considered discriminatory because there was no evidence that the applicant who scored 89 or better would be any better firefighter than another who scored a 64, and in fact in 2005 a federal judge said the test discriminated against Black candidates.

Last year the city lost a U.S. Supreme Court ruling after appealing that the plaintiffs’ did not file their claim in time.

“Our objective throughout has been to provide a remedy for qualified African American applicants who should have been hired, but weren’t because or a test cut-off that had nothing to with selecting the best firefighters,” said executive director of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee Jay Readey. “We are a step closer now to providing jobs and money to those who deserve them.”

Law Department spokesperson Jennifer Hoyle called the ruling a partial victory for the city because the number of hires were reduced from 132 to 111, decreasing the amount in damages they owed the applicants.  The city is expected to owe $30 million in damages to the applicants, Hoyle said.   

Applicants who will be eligible to receive relief in the case include those who took the 1995 exam, and passed, scoring at least 65 but no higher than 88. Their pensions will be adjusted as if they were part of the Fire Department for the last 16 years.

Now Smith has an opportunity to continue a family firefighter legacy that appeared all but over nearly two decades ago.

“My grandfather and father were firefighters,” the Indiana fertilizer plant employee said who as a kid would tag along with his father to watch him battle blazes throughout the city. “That is what I wanted to do.”

Reed, who is also contemplating reliving the dream of fighting fires, said the recent ruling means more to him than just monetary significance.

“It was a long time coming. We went through a lot over the years,” he said. “I’m proud to be part of something like that. The system had to change. We had to break up the good ol’ boy network.”  

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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