Organizers said once funding is secured to install such amenities as a wheelchair lift and to build a handicap accessible bathroom the Chicago African-American Firefighters Museum will be up and running in the next year.
“I’d say we need about $400,000 more to complete our restoration of the museum and then we will be done,” said Morris Davis, a retired Chicago firefighter and president of the museum. “Our goal is to have the museum open to the public by September 2015.”
Donations for the museum can be sent to P.O. Box 496353, Chicago, IL 60649 or made online.
He credited Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), whose ward includes the museum site, with getting all the red tape cut for the museum.
“She has been a tremendous help to us and we love her for all that she has done,” added Davis.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced an ordinance last March that allowed organizers to develop the vacant firehouse at 5349 S. Wabash Ave. into a museum with a 10-year, $1 lease.
“It is important that the city memorialize the public safety contributions of African-American firefighters … who have protected generations of Chicagoans,” Emanuel said.
And in 2008, Mayor Richard M. Daley also introduced an ordinance that would have allowed the museum to lease the firehouse for $1, but Davis said the organization never moved in because of problems with the building.
A group of black Chicago firefighters, both current and retired, gathered Tuesday at the firehouse for lunch and to discuss what else needs to be done to complete restoration to the two-story, brick building.
Malick Bilal, 44, has been a firefighter for 18 years and said it is important to finish the museum so stories about black firefighters can be told.
“The museum will not only tell all the amazing stories about black firefighters but also serve as a tourist attraction for the South Side,” Bilal. “Black people need a place of pride they can come to on the South Side. People need to know the great contributions black firefighters have made in Chicago.”
Previously working in corporate America as an auditor Bilal said it was never his goal to become a fireman.
“All my white co-workers [at the time] wanted to be a fireman and encouraged me to take the exam with them, so I did,” he recalled. “And wouldn’t you know it, I was the only one to get a letter back saying I had passed the exam.”
Over the last few years changes have been made been made by the CFD following a 2011 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that the entrance exam discriminated against blacks and ordered the city to hire 111 new black firefighters and pay millions of dollars in settlements to other black applicants.
According to Larry Langford, a spokesman for the fire department, the mandatory retirement age for firefighters is 63, and the maximum age to be hired as a firefighter is 37.
But Bilal said while the fire department has improved employee diversity more needs to be done to ensure that blacks have a way to secure jobs they are qualified for just like other races.
“It’s time blacks have a system to get hired as a firefighter and not just by a miracle. We can’t call an alderman or relative like other firemen did when they were hired,” explained Bilal. “We too need a system for getting our qualified people hired for jobs like firemen.”
However, Davis is not satisfied with what he described as “slow progress” when it comes to management within the CFD.
“I worked 30 years before I received my first promotion. I was promoted to an engineer and retired as a lieutenant,” said Davis, who retired in 1992 after 37 years on the job. “No one should have to work 30 years on a job before receiving their first promotion.”