Fired black firefighter describes being led away

I have to admit I had a hollow feeling when I read about the speech Mayor Finizio gave at a weekend ceremony held in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King.

The mayor talked about his own experience in civil rights, as a gay man, and said over the years he has tried to "strike down discrimination wherever it could be found."

And yet it was only last week that I had spoken to the mayor about his firing in December of the first black firefighter recruit hired by the city in more than 30 years, someone who might have finally begun to tip, ever so slightly, the racial balance in the largely white department.

The mayor's excuses for supporting the fire chief's decision to uphold the predominately white face of the department struck me as extraordinarily thin. He referred to a still-passing test score of 79 and some minor discipline at the state firefighting academy, where the recruit, Alfred Mayo, was the only black in a class of 48.

Apparently, the worst offense involved Mayo being accused of writing the name of the class in small letters in wet cement in a fresh section of new sidewalk.

Mayo denied the cement writing, although evidently his admission that he did tell another recruit, who confessed to a similar writing-in-cement incident, that he should not have admitted guilt, was, in the end, held against him. (A copy of a report on the strange cement incident appears online with the column.)

Before I read Mayor Finizio's grand remarks about striking "down discrimination wherever it could be found," I had just finished reading an email I had received from Mayo.

He sent along some quotes from a letter he wrote to his uncle right after he was escorted off the academy grounds, in the wake of his firing by the New London fire chief and mayor.

I hate to admit to being a softie, but it struck me as an especially sad moment.

"I NEVER ever said a cuss word out loud at the academy but upon being walked out I wanted to and (I FEEL) I had every right to cuss out those instructors so bad for what was happening, but I am so respectful that I still said 'sir' and spoke respectfully the whole time . . .

"I know you can guess what I felt like but I assure you it was worse," Mayo wrote in describing his departure.

"I was humiliated more than I have ever been in my life. I had a state police man walking right next to me like I was a damn criminal. When I went and shook EVERY instructor's hand as I left, he was right behind me.

"The guys I grew close to saw the tears in my eyes and one good friend had one in his eyes as we caught eye contact.

"I wanted so bad to give him a hug but I kept my head up high and walked across the street to my car then drove off, while the state cop and those two instructors who made my time there a living hell watched me."

He went on to write that he doesn't want to sue the city. He just wants his job back.

Maybe, as time goes on, we will know more about what happened to the city's first black firefighter recruit in more than 30 years.

It is sure beginning to look, based on what's on the record, like discrimination that ought to be struck down wherever it's found.

This is the opinion of David Colllins

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