Monroe Williams oral history interview , 2000 August 15 and 2000 August 22. OH-01992. [Audio recording] Oral History Research Center, Special Collections and Archives, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Las V
Standardized Rights Statement
So were you the first two black people on the fire department? Yeah. So what was that like? The first day I went to the agility test. The process was kind of stretched out a little bit. I don't recall exactly when I took the written exam. But when I took the agility test, this guy — his name was Charlie Boy — called me over in the corner. He was giving the agility test. He called me over in the hallway. It was at Doolittle Recreation Center where they were giving the agility test. So he calls me over and says, "Let me speak to you for a minute." So we're standing in the hallway at the center there. He was saying, "Man, you don't want to go through with this." And I'm saying, "Go through with this?" He said, "Yeah, because they're going to be waiting on you." Who's going to be waiting on me? Now, you know, when I went to this agility, I was thinking, man, I really don't want to do this. I'm having a good time where I am, working a few blocks from my house because the hours are good and the pay was pretty good. It was better than what I was getting ready to make. But when he said this, then this motivated me to want to meet this gorilla, whoever this was that was going to prevent me from working because I had never met that. And I was kind of arrogant, too, because I had just come out of the Navy and had worked with this doctor as his assistant. And I'm still pretty young at the time. So I thought, well, I've got to give it a try. So when I hit the floor, I was defensive. But the first day I went to work, the fire chief said, "I you understand you were a corpsman in the Navy." And I said, "Yeah." This is after the two-week training course that they give you. He said, "Well, I need you to take a look at this sore I got on my arm." He had a splinter that went in his arm straight down. So I went to the rescue unit and got some tools that I needed, an Alice clamp, and I probed through the mucous and stuff and felt for the splinter. I had just left the Navy and all this was fresh in my head. So I probed and I found this splinter and I pulled it out. I worked at a urology ward. So the bandages that you 27 do there have got to be unique. So when I bandaged him up, he looks at it and he thinks, wow, I've never seen anything that good. So right away, I went to the rescue unit. This was a good and a bad situation. It took me away from the engine, which was the basic for fire-fighting or for even learning about the engine itself You know, that's what the promotional exams are all about, this engine. But it also took me away from the rest of the crew because I'm gone all the time on rescue. So I don't see the prejudice. I don't hear the prejudice that I might have if I had been around the station most of the time. I did that for five years. Then from there, I went to driving a tanker for a while. You didn't have to be certified. Everybody could drive this. It was just an assignment. I stayed on the fire department for 25 years. What is a tanker? It's a water truck. After 18 years, I made captain, which was kind of unique because there was an ad in the paper. And it said four people were promoted today to captain. John Doe, he's been on the fire department six years. And Joe Smith, he's been on the fire department eight years. And Joe black, he's been on there ten years. And Monroe Williams, he's been on 18 and a half years. And we just promoted him. It was a big thing. There were two blacks, as a matter of fact, promoted at the same time, a guy named Bill Young and me. There were a lot of little things that would happen on the job. People would write on the locker, "Joe Nigger" or something like that. Or one day we came to work and there was a swastika on somebody's boot that somebody else had put on there. But there were some good people on there, too. There were people, if they heard of anything that sounded prejudiced, then they immediately jumped up and said something or came to at that time my defense, but it was just the overall black defense. It was a good experience. I look at the guys now that are on there. There are probably seven or eight chiefs. As a matter of fact, the county fire chief is black. So things have changed and because they've changed it was worth all the things that you experience. Seeing the change, then you think, well, it's great that guys are able to do these things that none of us were able to do way back when. 28 What kind of traveling did you do in the Navy? None. I was assigned to Oakland Naval Hospital. And that's where I worked on the urology ward from the time that I went in until I got out. Was that disappointing? Oh, no. It was interesting work. Like I say, I scrubbed for this black doctor on everything that he did. That included all of the surgeries that we did on the ward. If he wanted to look at an autopsy or go to the autopsy, then I went with him. I did all the meds. I ordered all the medications. I did all the IVs, which wasn't allowed at the time. That's why that was unique. Everybody couldn't do an IV. But I had this nurse that just insisted, well, you do this IV. So I would do those. So I had an education on the job, but it was an experience. It gave me confidence. When I went in the fire department, as far as first aid or anything like that, I got a first aid card. So I taught everybody there. I gave everybody there their first aid card. Everything was in my head. We'd sit around and be talking about something, and I'd rattle off the bones in the body and the different things like that. So I think that background gave me their respect, which I probably wouldn't have had coming on as one of the first black persons that they had ever seen. I worked hard at the job. I fought fire. I ate a lot of smoke. I tried to be the first one in the building to, again, gain their respect to make sure that I didn't hear anything that was going to be derogatory or negative. So I think I did gain their respect. I think a lot of them would come up to me and pull me aside and say, "I'm from so-and-so, and I never worked with a black person before and, man, you've changed my mind about these people." Or I had people in a roundabout way still remember things that I did at fires that nobody else would do. So it was a thing, where I guess when I look back on it, I kind of wished that maybe I was coming along now because things would have been a lot different. I kind of feel a little bit cheated because I didn't get the rank that I probably should have gotten. If I deserved it, maybe some of the accolades that I should have gotten, even though I did get a few little plaques and things that nobody else has.