Minneapolis Fire Department hopes to continue expanding diversity among fire ranks

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A retired Minneapolis firefighter recounts his experiences working for the department in the 1980s after it was desegregated.

Right now, 15% of all Minneapolis firefighters are black, according to city data. Within the city of Minneapolis, African Americans make up nearly 19% of the population.

Minorities could not apply to the Minneapolis Fire Department (MFD) until the 1970s, but the change didn’t come easily.

Celester Webb, a retired MFD firefighter, picked up where he left off when he visited Minneapolis Fire Station #21.

It’s been nearly 20 years since Webb was suited up in the front seat of a fire truck.

“This is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” he said. “It’s very dangerous, but you make lifelong friends. The guys that were on my crew are like brothers to this day.”

In 1986, he earned his spot on the Minneapolis Fire Department, but he was fighting more than just fires.

“When I came on, some of the guys that voted in the 70s to keep African Americans off the job were still working,” Webb said.

The Minneapolis Fire Department was desegregated in the early 1970s, but Webb said racial tensions still lingered.

“80% of the guys didn’t like you because of who you were,” he said.

Webb said it was like he was invisible. His own team avoided him, and he had to have his own back while putting out fires.

“There would be sometimes at the station I’d call my wife, and I’d tell her ‘I’m on my own today,'” he said.

But eventually, he didn’t have to be.

Webb and other firefighters created their own support system by having an all-Black team by choice.

“When I was a young firefighter on the job, I ended up working on a rig with Celester Webb,” said Chief Bryan Tyner, Minneapolis Fire Department.

Webb mentored Chief Tyner when he was a rookie on the job decades ago.

Now, he’s making history.

“It feels really good to be the second Black fire chief and to be able to actually have a say so,” Tyner said.

Chief Tyner is helping to pave the way for more diversity and inclusion with different recruitment programs and outreach.

About 15% of the Minneapolis Fire Department is Black, and he explained he hopes the number continues to climb.

“I’m extremely proud because when I see them, they stand on all of our shoulders,” Webb said.

Last year the Minneapolis City Council designated fire station #24 as a local landmark. The building was a black-run fire station that operated during the Jim Crow era.