Some of the veterans of the 1962 integration of Fire Station No. 3 gather at the station. From left are District Chief Leslie Newman, Captain Frank Leathers, Shift Commander Alva Miller and Chief Joe Douglas Jr.
replace him when he was off duty. For Topeka in the early 1960s, blacks and whites sharing a bed was still a rather radical idea. So, despite the national trends, there was a good deal of surprise when the firefighters began hearing talk of integration in the summer of 1962. In early August, white firefighters were asked to volunteer for transfer into the black station. Shortly afterward, others were told they were going to work with their black colleagues. Back at station No. 3, some firefighters got word about a possible integration. Others found out only the night before it happened when McKinley Burnett, president of the Topeka NAACP and a key player in the Brown v. Board of Education case, walked into their station and broke the news. On August 16, 1962, six white firefighters were assigned to station No. 3 and six black firefighters were destined to be transferred out to other stations. It was integration. But without any preparation or guidelines, it was an integration little celebrated by either side. “It needed to be planned,” says Douglas. “They just threw us out there. … Nobody was happy about it.”
Something to prove For Douglas, integration eventually met being uprooted from Station No. 3 to Station No. 2. “There was a totally different attitude in the thinking of the white firefighters at that time. They knew us, but they didn’t really know us. It wasn’t only the fire department but everything. A lot of things were segregated then,” recalls Douglas. The move was complicated, Douglas says, because there were no instructions or guidelines given about how to decide what he calls the “sticky wicket” issues of the two races eating together, how they would share the bedding, and whether senior black firefighters would be respected by lower-ranked whites. Absent any supervision, Douglas says he felt that he had to prove himself to his new colleagues while drawing on the self-respect that he was taught by his father. While proving himself, Douglas also noticed that many of his new white colleagues were proving something to him—that they were willing to bring him into their station. “I want to give great credit to the white firefighters for making it work,” says Douglas. “It wasn’t all what the black firefighters did to make it work. It was what the blacks and whites did together.” A decorated fire chief and respected veteran, Douglas retired in 1989 in an entirely different department, one that included all firefighters with paramedic training and women as a part of the team.
Topeka Magazine Spring 2009