Chief Leader – September 23, 2014
by SARAH DORSEY
When Tracy Lewis encountered problems during her 17 years as a Firefighter, officers would tell her, “You want to change something? Get promoted.”
On Sept. 17, Ms. Lewis did more than just become a Lieutenant—she became the second African-American woman in FDNY history to do so, 12 years after Ella McNair was promoted.
Family Health Issues
Only a small minority of firefighters ever make it into the officers’ ranks, and Ms. Lewis, 41, did so during a trying time in her life: over the months that she was studying for the exam, she was also taking care of her grandmother, who was in the hospital, and her mother, who was sick with cancer.
“Going back and forth from home to work to the hospital, it was difficult,” she said last week in a phone interview. “It was extremely difficult.”
Ms. Lewis was embraced after the promotion ceremony by Ms. McNair, who was one of the original 41 women to join the department in 1982 after winning a discrimination lawsuit. Like several of her female colleagues at the time, Ms. McNair was harassed by firefighters reluctant to accept her as part of the force. She was even cut by a knife during a struggle in 1986 with a male firefighter when she tried to remove from a firehouse bulletin board an inflammatory letter to this newspaper criticizing women Firefighters.
Two decades later, Ms. Lewis said she faced her own gender-based harassment and ostracism when she was transferred from a friendly firehouse to Engine Co. 257 in Canarsie in 2003.
Years of Hostility
Recounting the story last year at a City Council hearing, she described five years of hostility and exclusion that ended only when she was transferred again in 2008.
At the time, she couldn’t believe that the officers in her division didn’t do more to protect her from the relentless harassment. The thought eventually helped nudge her toward a decision.
“In the past, I remember thinking, ‘You’re the officer, how are you allowing this to go on?’” she said, remembering the bad years. “And I just never understood that.”
“This nonsense is not going to go on under my watch,” she added. “It’s not.”
Ms. Lewis is thrilled about her promotion, and is also aware that in a way, she’s starting over, much as she did when she first graduated from the Fire Academy. She said she’s not nervous now, but she remembers all those years ago, not knowing what to expect when she first sat in a firetruck on a real run. She’s sure there will be some jitters when she does it for the first time as an officer.
Women still make up less than 1 percent of the FDNY, and though the last few Firefighter classes have ushered more diverse faces into the department, people of color still make up less than 20 percent of the force.
Not Satisfied Yet
Ms. McNair retired as a Lieutenant, the highest rank achieved by an African-American woman, and Ms. Lewis hopes to surpass her by making Captain next. The Captain’s test is being held in December—Ms. Lewis says she’ll take it even though she’ll have very little time to study, since the next exam likely won’t be offered for another four years.
Asked what younger women have said about her promotion, Ms. Lewis shared a text from another female firefighter.
“Congratulations on this monumental moment,” she wrote. “…I am so proud of this organization and to be a woman. Thank you to all the women who went before me who knocked down walls for me.”