Why the N.Y. Fire Dept. Canceled Its Black History Month Celebration

When the Fire Department sought to commemorate Black History Month this year, a worthy honoree seemed obvious: Robert O. Lowery, New York City’s first Black fire commissioner, who was appointed nearly six decades ago by Mayor John V. Lindsay.

A documentary on Mr. Lowery’s life was to premiere Tuesday as the focal point of the department’s celebration of Black History Month, which ends this week. But the event was abruptly canceled after Mr. Lowery’s family protested the film’s failure to more fully include the Vulcan Society, the influential Black firefighters’ association.

“My father would not have been fire commissioner without the Vulcan Society,” said Gertrude Erwin, Mr. Lowery’s daughter.

The cancellation of the screening of “The First: Fire Commissioner Robert O. Lowery’s Story,” represents an awkward turn of events for an agency that is still struggling to overcome decades of racism and homogeneity in its ranks. All but one of its 23 staff chiefs are white men, while about 10 percent of firefighters are Black in a city whose population is about 23 percent Black.

The department first approached Mr. Lowery’s daughters about making the documentary roughly two decades after his death, at a ceremony last year renaming its auditorium in his memory.

The family was receptive, provided the department met certain conditions.

“We made very clear from the outset that the Vulcan Society was a core element in telling my uncle’s story and that it was an expectation that the Vulcan Society would have some role in the film,” said Chris Lowery, the fire commissioner’s nephew.

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