Alfred Mayo can now settle in for the work of firefighting

Alfred Mayo, the first black firefighter hired in New London in more than 30 years, won't need to wait to run into a burning building to prove himself.

And yet I have little doubt he will turn in a thoroughly professional performance on the city's firefighting force, ready for anything he's asked to do.

Indeed, Mayo already has a proven propensity for heroism, having been through trial by fire of New London politics and dysfunctional government.

Mayor Finizio finally did the right thing last week, rehiring Mayo after abruptly and unjustly firing him back in December, days before the recruit was scheduled to graduate from the state firefighting academy, having successfully completed all the necessary training and course work.

The mayor, in firing Mayo, went along with the recommendation of Fire Chief Ronald Samul, probably the single person most responsible for the embarrassing makeup of the city's nearly all-white fire department.

Samul has been chief since 1985. His tenure goes back to the era when the federal government ordered an integration of the department, an order the city and Samul ignored.

When I first asked Finizio in January about Mayo's firing, he acknowledged that it was indeed an important decision because the city hasn't hired a black firefighter in so long.

But then the mayor gave only lame excuses for the firing, emphasizing what he said were Mayo's poor grades.

It turned out Mayo's grades were fine, as good or even better than those of the white recruits.

And so began the second phase of injustice with regard to Mayo, as the mayor, in the weeks and months that followed, continued to malign his character and qualifications, giving new and increasingly inappropriate reasons for the firing, even as the state NAACP, state Rep. Ernest Hewett and finally the Connecticut commissioner of emergency services, in charge of the firefighting academy, all got on board to support Mayo's rehiring.

It should have been obvious at the outset of all this that Mayo was railroaded, to use Hewett's word, at the firefighting academy, where he was the only black recruit in his class.

However thin the complaints against Mayo by academy officials may be have been - an unproven allegation of writing in wet cement or a charge that he made a joking obscene gesture for a picture taken by another recruit before class - they were all swallowed whole in New London, where no one seemed to want to disturb the tradition of hiring only white firefighters.

It was especially troubling that, through it all, the mayor never asked to meet with Mayo and ask him directly about the preposterous allegations coming from the academy.

Not only did the mayor fire Mayo and then malign him, but he eventually offered to hire him back and then rescinded the offer, essentially firing him a second time.

Finizio said after that offer was withdrawn that he had gotten legal advice that the photo taken by a classmate of Mayo making an obscene gesture was grounds for the city to defend itself against a discrimination lawsuit.

So much for the city's legal advice.

The report from the commissioner on Mayo's experience at the academy dismissed the gesture as routine school horseplay. When Hewett held a press conference on the report he held up picture of white recruits making similar gestures, some of them during class and in uniform. It also turned out that a white recruit who cheated on an exam was allowed to graduate.

It took the mayor far too long to come to the right decision in this case. Everyone in New London should hope there was a learning curve for him in it.

The NAACP, in a press conference Thursday celebrating Mayo's rehiring, suggested that the healing should begin.

That's an honorable spirit.

I have little doubt that Mayo, who took all the insults in stride, will settle comfortably into the responsibilities of his new job, which is what he has said all along is all he ever wanted.

I have one final suggestion.

Jane Glover, a former black mayor of the city and now Mayor Finizio's chief administrative officer, and black City Councilor Wade Hyslop should both attend Mayo's graduation from the firefighting academy later this month, which is being especially arranged by the emergency services commissioner.

It would make up for some of the shame Hyslop and Glover should feel for supporting the mayor's firing of Mayo and their refusal to discuss the issue in public.

Maybe even more than Chief Samul, they should be embarrassed, as longtime black leaders in the city, for the lack of minority firefighters in New London, a sad, 30-year tradition that unfolded on their watch.

This is the opinion of David Collins


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