Black firefighters in NC allege racism amid larger reckoning

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Timika Ingram holds a jacket she had when she was a firefighter on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, in Charlotte, N.C. A group of Black firefighters in a North Carolina city have filed a grievance over conditions they have endured for more than 30 years. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – WINSTON-They threw her new cellphone on the roof of the station house and placed nails under the wheels of her pickup truck. As she prepared to answer a call, someone poured tobacco juice in her boots. It was too much for Timika Ingram to bear.

“It caused me pain, sleepless nights, suffering, anxiety,” said Ingram, whose four years as a firefighter in North Carolina amounted to a collection of indignities.

Other Black firefighters who endured similar treatment in the Winston-Salem Fire Department recently brought their complaints before the city. The grievance they filed in October calls for Chief William “Trey” Mayo to be fired for failing to discipline white firefighters who, the group said, have created a hostile work environment through comments in person and on social media.

“It's a festering problem that has become even more disease-ridden and even more detrimental to the life of the individuals who work here because of the current chief,” said 28-year veteran firefighter Thomas Penn, a leader of the group that calls itself Omnibus.

Across the country, firefighters are confronting incidents of racism and discrimination as part of a burgeoning movement to call out and address racial injustice in America.

Two Black women sued the city of Denver in September, saying its fire department discriminated against them because of their gender and race. One alleged a captain overseeing her training said she should “keep her head down and act like a slave” to graduate from the program.

Last year, a Black firefighter sued city officials in Lansing, Michigan, saying they did nothing to stop racial discrimination within the fire department after he received hostile comments and found a banana on his assigned firetruck’s windshield. He filed another lawsuit this summer.

A white Delaware firefighter was charged in July with hate crimes and harassment after allegedly sending threatening messages to a Black paramedic and two part-time workers, one who is Black and the other white who has Black family members, the News Journal reported.