Jim Crow laws were struck down in Florida in the 1960s, but it took decades more for hiring practices at the Hialeah Fire Department to reflect that more-inclusive reality.
Michael Wright will be the first to tell you that, and Nikita McMullen’s heard all about it.
Wright, 55, was the department’s first African-American firefighter. He was hired in 1986, just three years before an anti-discrimination lawsuit shook up the demographic makeup of a notoriously homogeneous troupe that barely resembled the diverse Latin community it would one day serve.
Wright is retired now, but revels in the role of mentor, handing down knowledge and life lessons to locals kids and teens, as well as newcomers to the department. McMullen, who holds the position of assistant to the Hialeah fire department chief as the first African-American woman to do so, is among those pupils.
Firefighter understood adversity
To understand Michael Wright, the very essence of the soft-spoken former firefighter, ask him about irony.
Take his origin story, for example. He became a firefighter — a physically and emotionally demanding job — by way of laziness.
“My mom gave me three options when I graduated high school,” Wright recalls. “The military. A job. Or college. I didn’t have skills to get a decent job.”
He enrolled at the University of Florida, where he took an interest in law.
“The idea of helping people always intrigued me,” he said.
But it wasn’t until he was 26 that he considered joining the fire department of Hialeah, where he grew up. It seemed implausible. A hiring practice called “the rule of three” had proven impenetrable for African Americans. The rule gave higher-ups the ability to cherry-pick from groups of three candidates based on personal preference rather than test scores. After three strikes within that rule system, you were permanently disqualified from applying with the department. The result was a department of more than 250 men who looked nothing like Wright.
Until Hialeah Fire Chief Herminio Lorenzo hired him.
Whether it was because Wright’s résumé was comprised of supervising positions that demonstrated leadership abilities or simply because Lorenzo was tired of wasting perfectly good candidates, Wright doesn’t know. But he was hired, and he represented the first step down a long road toward progress.
“He stuck his neck out for me,” Wright said. “I couldn’t let him down.”
To understand Michael Wright, ask him about adversity.
Being the first, and only, African American in the Hialeah Fire Department proved challenging. Colleagues hurled racial slurs on a regular, almost daily, basis. They shoved equipment at him. They weren’t all bad, Wright is quick to point out, but still. There was a palpable air of hostility. And after five months, he was ready to call it quits.
“If you quit, who wins?” Wright recalls Lorenzo asking him. “Do your job and everything will work out.”
Sticking it out paid off. Not only did the bigots and the racists retire within a year of Wright entering the department, but he also experienced something few people do: He felt he had found his calling.
Wright’s first experience with firefighters — both the people and the archetype — came at an early age when a neighbor’s house caught on fire. The bright, spinning lights atop the gleaming firetruck drew him closer, so close that he got his finger stuck in a valve while fiddling with the truck’s rugged metal hardware. Crying out for help, a firefighter came to young Wright’s rescue.
Being a firefighter honed traits he holds up to this day. Most important among them is patience, which he says was a beacon of strength during his first months on the job. It came in handy, too, during court proceedings of a 1989 lawsuit against the city of Hialeah, which alleged that the fire department alienated black applicants and intentionally skewed white.
As he battles leukemia and bladder cancer today, patience comes in handy again. As does his head-on approach to adversity. And acceptance of irony. The man who saved lives, hundreds of them, can’t save his own.
But, he maintains, “my life don’t revolve around this.”
Wright’s mission, for as long as he can carry it out, is to mentor young people. He hopes that his story of struggle and pioneering inspires them to break the mold that society tries to fit them into.
“We can’t let the ‘ism’s’ stop us from moving forward.”
Hard work paved her way
Growing up in tough neighborhoods, like the one Nikita McMullen comes from, can be like walking through a revolving door. You’ll go ’round and ’round and ’round unless you decide to get out. It’s a cycle.
McMullen chose to get out of the revolving door and escape the Pork and Bean projects of Liberty City when she got a job as a temp for the fire department of Hialeah at age 19. She was a single mom and knew she’d have to work to give her daughter, Krystal, who was only 1 at the time, the things her own parents couldn’t provide.
“I came from nothing, and I always wanted more,” said McMullen, who celebrated her 37th birthday Monday.
She leapfrogged from one role to another within the fire department, carrying out a wide range of duties, from billing and records custodian to human resources. Some would see that as unstable. She saw it as an opportunity to learn new things, her colleague Isaiah Williams said.
It wasn’t her intention to be the “first” anything. She simply set out to work hard. Her hard work paved the way for her to become the first African-American assistant to the fire chief, and the first African-American woman to work for the Hialeah Fire Department full time.
Rather than contemplate how being a woman of color may have been an obstacle, McMullen considers instead what she has learned. Her life, she said, is a tale of tragedy: Rough beginnings in a poor neighborhood, followed by growing pains as a single, working mother to suffering the pang of loss. In June 2011, the father of her third daughter, Jade, took his own life. The hardest part of the ordeal, McMullen said, was having to pick up the pieces, despite the piercing sadness, for the sake of her children.
“I’m all they have,” she said.
She learned self-suffiency and resilience, which she preaches to Krystal, now 17 and applying to colleges to study nursing, as well as Krystal’s younger sisters, Diamond, 15, and Jade, 9. But her integrity and work ethic do the talking for her as she leads by example. Tragedy gave way to triumph, McMullen says.
She is grateful for figures like Michael Wright, who created a precedence of inclusion and diversity in the Hialeah Fire Department. But as far as McMullen is concerned, her race doesn’t define her.
Her motto is, “Be the best you can be every day.” When she can’t quite reach that lofty aspiration, her faith lifts her up.
“I’m covered by God’s grace,” she said.