City’s first black fire inspector tells young firefighters: ‘Stay positive’

91-year-old Marvin Douglas spent 32 years in the Austin Fire Department. In the early 1970s, he became the city's first African-American fire inspector.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Being the first of anything is a triumph. One former Austin firefighter knows that well. He was the city’s first black fire inspector.

Marvin Douglas, now 91 years old, remembers his first day in the fire department. He has documented much of his 32-year career in several photo books. He still remembers names, faces and fires.

“When you come out of the station and you see that,” he said, pointing to a picture of a fully-involved fire, “you want to get another job.”

Douglas joined the department just a few months after Austin appointed its first black firefighters. Willie Ray Davis, Nathaniel Kindred and Roy Greene joined the force in 1952.

But, there was only one firehouse where African-Americans could work, and it was in the all-black neighborhood of east Austin. Douglas said the residents appreciated their service.

“We’d pull out of the station with the sirens and things going. The people would come out and clap for us,” Douglas said. “They were just really proud.”

For a little more than 20 years, he fought raging fires. His fire safety skills are still intact.

“The worst fire to go into is a smoldering fire because, if you open it, it can explode,” he said. “But if it’s burning, you just go in low with your hose and you can put it out.”

Douglas saw many lives saved and some lost.

“The first fire death I saw a gentleman told me, ‘I want you to look at this,'” he said. “‘Because if you’re going to continue in this profession, you’ll need to suppress certain things.'”

Then in the early 1970s, the city needed diversity in the department’s leadership ranks. It tapped Douglas to become a fire inspector — Austin’s first black one.

“I told the fire chief, that I will never ask you for anything special. But, ‘I don’t like “N” jokes.’ And, he understood,” Douglas said.

But some homeowners and businesses that needed his inspections were not so understanding. “Some of them would not sign their names on the slip,” Douglas said of the inspection slips that needed customers’ signatures. “I would take it back and say ‘refused to sign.'”

Douglas believes his race played a part. “They wouldn’t say that, but I knew that’s what it was,” he said.

More than 30 years after retiring, he believes the department still struggles with hiring challenges and diversity issues. For instance, two white firefighters filed a complaint back in 2009 claiming that they were passed over for promotions so the department can bring in less-qualified minorities.

Douglas, who attended Huston-Tillotson University, said it is an argument that he has heard before, only flipped around.

“When you only needed a GED to get in [to the fire academy]. When you say you went to college or something like that, they thought you were overqualified,” he said.

He offered advice to young minority firefighters: Stay positive.

“If you look at the negative thing all of the time, you’ll be really upset,” he said. “You don’t want that. Your blood pressure will go up. And, always be nice. You’ll be surprised. People change.”

Some change did come to the department, in part, through Douglas’s career. In 1963, Joe Villareal became Austin’s first Hispanic firefighter. And in 1979, Betty Swint joined the department as its first black female firefighter.

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