WASHINGTON PARK — A team of Chicago firefighters spent Thursday cleaning up a vacant firehouse that will eventually tell their stories of sacrifice and heroism.
"This building will hold our future. It will tell stories that no one but black firefighters know about," said 42-year-old Malick Bilal, a 17-year veteran of the Chicago Fire Department.
Bilal, of Bronzeville, was one of 50 black firefighters who volunteered their time Thursday to help ready the Chicago African-American Firefighters Museum, which is set to open in 2014. "This museum is our way of giving back to the community."
Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced an ordinance in March that would allow the museum organizers to develop the property at 5349 S. Wabash Ave. with a 10-year, $1 lease.
Ezra McCann, a 65-year-old Bronzeville resident who retired in 2006 after 30 years as a Chicago firefighter, organized the group.
"There is too much history about black firefighters that still needs to be told. This museum will help tell our stories and the contributions we made to the Chicago Fire Department," McCann said.
Retired firefighter Morris Davis is leading the creation of the museum and said it is important that people know exactly what black firefighters have done.
"People don't know that a black man invented the sliding pole," said Morris, 81, who retired in 2006 after 37 years with the department. Although no longer used, the sliding pole, was invented by Chicago Capt. David B. Kenyon in 1878.
Mark O'Bannon retired from the department in 2006 after joining in 1977.
"Cleaning up is what we [firefighters] do. And besides, if we do not take the initiative to start this museum, then who will?" said O'Bannon as he installed plumbing in the walls.
The group cleaning up Thursday also included firefighters who are relatively new to the department.
Richard Thomas, 42, was one of the class of 98 firefighters who graduated in November. He was joined by three other new grads: Derrick Smith, 52; Jimmy Johnson, 41 and John Stelly, 47.
"What more could you ask for than to have a job where you are constantly being asked for help. And the fact that I get paid to do what I love is a blessing," said Thomas, of Grand Crossing.
The firefighters Thursday spoke about some of the hurdles they had to endure, including the 1995 entrance exam. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 1995 test discriminated against blacks, and the court ordered the city to hire 111 black firefighters and pay tens of millions of dollars in settlements to other applicants. That history will be included in displays at the museum.
"I took the 1995 exam and prayed that one day I would get a chance to wear a Chicago fireman uniform, and my prayers were finally answered," said Johnson, who lives in West Pullman after moving from Downstate Carbondale and working as a firefighter there.
"Down there there were 34 firemen, but only five were black," Johnson said. "I never really got used to that, but I dealt with it. The lawsuit made it possible for me to be a Chicago firefighter, and I will be forever grateful."