Two days after Kenneth Walker, a New York town’s only Black firefighter, received a racially charged and threatening letter, his apartment where he lived with his wife and two children was set on fire and destroyed.
“If it can happen to me, it can happen to somebody else,” Walker, 28, told WKBW. “That was everything that we owned, and we pretty much have to start all over.”
Walker is a firefighter with the Gratwick Hose Volunteer Fire Company in North Tonawanda, which is located in the New York Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area.
On August 1, a racist letter printed in all caps was left in his mailbox:
“”NI**ERS ARE NOT ALLOWED TO BE FIREFIGHTERS,” it read. “NO ONE WANTS YOU IN THIS CITY. YOU HAVE UNTIL THE END OF THE WEEK TO RESIGN YOUR POSITION OR YOU WILL REGRET IT.”
Walker’s apartment was set ablaze on Wednesday. He and his family were not at home at the time, but their two cats perished in the fire.
Police arrested Matthew Jurado, a white male, for the act of arson. He is a former firefighter who had undergone training with Walker and actually lives across the street. Jurado, 39, was dismissed in July because he didn’t complete the necessary firefighting training.
In a news conference, North Tonawanda Police Captain Thomas Krantz said Jurado admitted to arson because he’d recently been “removed from the volunteer fire department.”
Walker’s wife, Amanda, said to The Buffalo News she was “angry and relieved but in disbelief” when she learned Jurado was arrested.
“He’s been over to our home a couple of times and talked to our [two young] kids,” she said. “You don’t know who your friends are.”
FBI spokeswoman Maureen Dempsey said in a statement the agency has received a copy of the note left at Walker’s apartment.
“Our office is conducting a review to determine what investigative steps are indicated under FBI policy with regard to federal jurisdiction in this matter,” Dempsey said.
Authorities are investigating whether the letter left in Walker’s mailbox and the arson are linked. Jurado has denied writing the letter.
He pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree arson at his arraignment on Friday and is being held at Niagara County Jail on $50,000 bail, according toPeople magazine. The next court hearing is Thursday.
An online fundraiser for Walker created on Wednesday has raised more than $140,000, exceeding its goal of $130,000.
Danny Spewak (@DannySpewakWGRZ) August 8, 2016
North Tonawanda is not diverse. According to Census.gov, the town has approximately 30,785 residents, and they are 96.5 percent white, 1.7 percent Latino, 0.8 percent Black, 0.7 percent Asian and 0.4 percent American Indian.
Walker being the only Black volunteer firefighter in the town may be reflective of its demographics. But historically, the field has been majority white and male.
Captain Joseph Franklin of the Plainfield Fire Department in New Jersey told DiversityInc his department is rare in that it is predominantly Black. He said a state decree in the 1980s enforced that police and fire departments should reflect the demographics of the communities they serve, and this resonated in Plainfield.
However, Franklin, who is African American and a career firefighter, added it is ultimately scoring successfully on mandatory exams that determine certifications and promotions within a department.
“If a Caucasian man or woman and I take the same test, we get graded the same way,” he said.
Franklin also said both volunteering and working professionally in fire services is usually generational “like a fraternity, Masonic club or the Elks.”
And historically, the culture has not been inclusive of Black men.
“It was traditionally a Caucasian job,” Franklin said. “It was nepotism, which made sure they got those jobs. Firefighters were mostly Irish and Italian, and it was hard for Black men to get hired.”
Compared to North Tonawanda, even in New York City, one of the most diverse locations in the state, Black firefighters still have to combat a culture that is not supportive of diversity.
“In New York City, they’re still trying to break out of that culture,” Franklin said. “Social groups are trying to break it.”
In 2014, after a seven-year legal battle, the City of New York reached a nearly $100 million settlement with close to 1,500 Black and Latino fire-department recruits who had accused the city and the Fire Department of New York of intentional racial discrimination.
The lawsuit, filed by the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of underrepresented firefighters, and the U.S. Department of Justice, claimed the FDNY hiring processes in 1999 and 2002 had an institutionalized bias in place to shut out underrepresented firefighters from receiving job placement.
Applicants who took the civil-service exam but did not get jobs and firefighters whose placement was delayed because of discrimination were assigned to firehouses in their residing neighborhoods. Under the settlement terms, the FDNY was mandated to implement new recruitment policies that will increase the number of Black and Latino firefighters.