Winston-Salem firefighters seek reform after alleging harassment, racism
Current and former firefighters in Winston-Salem say they had to deal with challenging conditions just to do their jobs
They call themselves Omnibus. They are the 14 current and former firefighters for the Winston-Salem Fire Department who say they have dealt with racism, harassment, and discrimination and have had enough.
As reported by the Winston-Salem Journal, at a news conference this week the firefighters alleged a pattern of abusive behavior that includes white colleagues doing noose-making workshops, spitting chewing tobacco juice in their boots, and have had fake gorilla heads placed on their desks. They say they’ve also been the subject of racist social media posts.
The firefighters were supported by a number of local racial justice organizations including Hate out of Winston. Miranda Jones, a member of the group, says the firefighters have endured bad treatment for too long.
“These men are catching hell in their firehouses,” Jones said at the press conference. “It took a lot of bravery for these men to reach out and tell their truth….and give us the sordid details of the rampant racism within the Winston-Salem Fire Department.”
The Winston-Salem Fire Department in North Carolina was integrated in 1951 by eight men but the racism remains, the firefighters and their supporters say.
Timika Ingram, a former Winston-Salem firefighter who left the agency after five years and repeated harassment, says she was particularly targeted as a Black woman. She told the Journal that nails were placed under the tires of her truck, that her boots were filled with water, her phone was taken, her clothing removed from a closet, and more.
Ingram’s experience reflects the same concerns that veteran firefighter Eddie Forrest expressed at the news conference. A retired captain who served for 30 years, Forrest says he never truly felt part of the department.
“You will be tolerated, but you will never be accepted,” Forrest said. “You will be an afterthought.”
The firefighters and their supporters are asking for an independent investigation and diversity training, as well as a training center in east Winston-Salem to train more firefighters of color.
The group also called for the firing of William ‘Trey” Mayo who has been the fire captain for the last five years, and an investigation into two fire captains for what they say is “blatant, gross, and repeated violations of sexual harassment, social media, or code of conduct policies.”
Though Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity emailed the Omnibus group prior to the news conference to encourage employees who’d experienced harassment or discrimination to report their concerns, he’s now announcing an independent investigation will take place.
“An outside consultant will do an independent review of the fire department as far as sexism, racism, favoritism, and harassment,” Garrity said to the Journal.
“It will be pretty wide open for firefighters to take part in several different ways — one-on-one, surveys, in group settings — without supervisors to express their concerns or comments about the culture of the fire department.”
Black firefighters make up 21.3% of the 390 Winston-Salem person fire department in 2020, according to city statistics.
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