Photo by Chris Faraone
Allen Curry was the victim of an unspeakable attack at the hands of fellow Boston firefighters. Decades later, his struggle endures, as does the BFD’s diversity problem.
“I’m sitting here talking to you, and even as I look you in the eyes, my mind is flashing back to Southeast Asia.”
Allen Curry’s memory was triggered by a gentle breeze rustling the tree’s branches above us, transporting him away from a park bench outside the Dudley Square Library to Vietnam in 1970. Now 64 years old, Curry grew up a block away from here, on Warren Street, and still lives in the area. I take in the other sounds of Curry’s neighborhood, sounds he grew up around, and wonder if these ever trigger vivid memories—buses struggling around turns, people chatting on corners, a steady stream of vehicles and passersby. When the playback ends, he looks back at me, smiles, and apologizes.
Curry’s flashbacks are a side effect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from his time in Vietnam but also the trials he would endure after. In 1976, he became the first black firefighter to serve at Engine 52 in Dorchester. He made the force in the wake of a 1974 court ruling known as the Beecher consent decree that ordered fire departments to hire one minority worker for every one white worker until “racial parity” was reached. As this led to a largely unwelcome increase in the hiring of black firefighters to an overwhelmingly white force, Curry faced intense discrimination and hostility, but he says he endured nonetheless, kept focus.
Bright and talkative, Curry is a vivid storyteller. He’s outgoing, always ready to speak to a familiar face in the neighborhood. He even has a catchphrase: “Al Curry from the ’Bury—not in a hurry.” But he’s prone to sudden pauses in speech and to steering off on tangents. At one point he begins to tell a story about a bigoted grammar school teacher in Roxbury who hit students, one of his earliest memories of racism, but veers off topic quickly. Vietnam comes up a lot—it’s the first thing Curry wants to talk about. He recalls that some of his friends cross-dressed to avoid the draft and says that despite admiring Muhammad Ali’s famous pacifism and being conflicted in his own sense of duty and service, Curry turned down a scholarship to Brandeis University and enlisted in the Army instead.
The PTSD from Curry’s service in Vietnam haunted his civilian life. He says he tried going to college afterward but couldn’t adjust because of flashbacks and and an inability to focus. After a few years his condition mellowed, and Curry decided to enter the fire department. But an attack in his own firehouse reignited his trauma and conjured a painful past. Decades later he calls his experience an “ambush”: One morning his colleagues exposed him to toxic fumes, burning his lungs and forcing him to retire from the fire department at the age of 32 after serving just five years.
Curry has told his life story to countless audiences over the last 30 years, including City Council members and courtrooms. His case is unique, even extreme, but reflects a longstanding lack of diversity in Boston’s public sector. As the Boston Globe noted last year, “Since the [Beecher] consent decree ended in 2003, the ranks of black firefighters has declined by 25 percent, from 420 to 315.” The BFD is now 72 percent white, in part due to a preference for hiring veterans combined with a one-year residency requirement. The US military is predominately white, while recruitment of people of color in cities, including Boston, is relatively low compared with rural and suburban areas.
Rayshawn Johnson, president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, an organization devoted to helping and increasing the number of minority firefighters, says non-white applicants are increasingly losing opportunities to recent white transplants. Furthermore, Johnson says the current lack of firefighters of color discourages many young people from applying to the department. “Only when we see others like us in those positions can we have those aspirations,” he says.
Forty years ago, Curry’s mother warned him against joining the BFD and said her friends in the police department faced harassment. He says despite the lack of black role models who fought fires, he applied anyway in order to give back to his community and save lives.
“I chose the fire department [instead of] the police department because I had just come from a situation where I had to use a firearm,” Curry says, referring to his time in Vietnam. “I didn’t think a fire would follow me home.”
Curry is a short man, but as a firefighter he learned to leverage his lean 5-foot-6 frame to move people and debris. He was focused on his career, too, hoping to make captain someday. In one standout moment he was working as a pipe operator, the one who holds the fire hose’s nozzle, and recalls that after all the flames were extinguished, the chief on duty personally congratulated Curry on a “good stop.”
“It felt good,” he says. “I was acknowledged as a firefighter … that [as] a minority firefighter, I could do the job.” Curry says that day made all the challenges he faced in the firehouse from that point forward bearable.
His fellow firefighters weren’t too receptive. Curry would overhear racist comments directed at kids in the street, at times with a pointed hostility. None of it compared to the incident that took place the morning in 1981 that ended his career after five years. The episode still haunts him today.
Image via Engine 52
It was a Sunday and his shift was almost over. Covered in dirt, grime, and ash from a night of work, Curry went into the showers. No sense in dragging all that mess home. He’d rather be clean when he got back to his wife and daughter, Allené, whose seventh birthday was just two days away.
Curry’s locker was the farthest from the showers, which usually meant he was the last one in line. But not that morning. There was no line at all, no one else in the showers. Perhaps he should’ve known something was wrong.
He ran the water. Shampooed his head.
As he rubbed the shampoo in, his nostrils started to sting. Then his eyes. At first, Curry didn’t think it was a big deal—maybe just some shampoo bothering him.
Then it became hard to breathe. Curry’s lungs were burning. It wasn’t soap; there was something stronger than shampoo covering him. He ran out of the shower, took some shallow breaths and felt his insides ablaze. Curry says he dashed out from the stalls and ran into two colleagues who, instead of helping him, directed him toward the lockers. After recovering some strength, he charged into his captain’s office, buck naked, complaining that he inhaled something dangerous. The captain called him an ambulance.
Paramedics rushed Curry to Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center). According to medical documents, he suffered second-degree burns internally. Meanwhile, back at his home, a man knocked on the back door, alarming Curry’s wife and daughter. The visitor introduced himself as a firefighter and told them about the injury. Now 42, Allené still wonders why the man came around the back.
“I was so young, but even then I figured something was wrong with that man coming to the back door and not the front,” she says.
Adding to the curiosity, Curry was transferred to a hospital on the South Shore, where he says he felt trapped. He suspects the move was intended to keep him far away from Boston, but didn’t waste much time hatching conspiracy theories. Instead, Curry played the cards he was dealt; a doctor who treated him in 1981 laid out a diagnosis in a handwritten note to the Boston Retirement Board: “Obstructive/restrictive pulmonary disease probably 2 degree exposure to toxic flames. Severe anxiety and depression.”
In layman’s terms, Curry was exposed to cleaning acid. Two fellow firefighters, Thomas Hammond and Francis McLaughlin, poured the chemicals down the drain of an adjacent stall, causing his shower head to spew fumes at him, leading to both physical and mental damages. Two years after the sabotage, a psychiatrist who was treating Curry noted in a letter to the city that he suffered from “recurrent, intrusive memories of the trauma and consequent incapacitating anxiety” that prevented him from working.
Curry’s forgiven the two men who burned him. But he is still reeling from residual trauma. “My medical opinion is that Mr. Curry’s PTSD was severely exacerbated by the abusive treatment he received at the hands of his fellow firefighters,” reads one memo from a United States Department of Veterans Affairs psychiatrist, dated Sept 18, 2009. The betrayal still haunts him as well.
“I know what it’s like to take a life,” Curry says, referring to his time at war. “But I was a firefighter, I was supposed to save lives.” Forgiveness aside, considering his chosen line of work, Curry still can’t come to grips with the fact that his colleagues did such a thing.
“They said it was a prank,” he says.
DOCTORS AND COURTROOMS
While the men who burned him stayed on the job, Curry was given only 72 percent disability benefits. So he sued the city and the firefighters who burned him. It took seven years for the lawsuit to play out, and the city was found causally negligent. Curry was awarded $10,000, but says that after paying his attorney, he was left with only $2,500—and still only collecting the 72 percent. As an added insult, the men who caused his injuries were found innocent of any wrongdoing.
In 1988, Curry found an ally in Charles Yancey, the now-former Boston City Councilor from Mattapan, who attempted to help secure a full pension for Curry. It took more than 20 years, but in 2009, Curry finally got a chance to formally request additional support from councilors. During the two-hour hearing, Maureen Feeney, chair of the retirement board at the time, explained that 100 percent full pension was “not something we hand out all the time,” noting firefighters only receive such packages in extreme situations, like when someone dies in the line of duty or sustains disabilities that prevent the retiree from performing work at all.
“It’s a shame what Allen Curry has gone through,” says Yancey, who was recently defeated for his Council seat after 32 years. “Right now it’s up to the mayor to push forward on the case.”
While the fight for pension remained a big part of his life, after recovering from his burns, Curry worked as a constable during the rest of the ’80s. Later, he took a job in private security on Big Dig projects and became an active member in his community, volunteering to help organize voter registrations drives and veterans events and helping the Five Streets Neighborhood Association, a housing rights group in Dorchester.
In the early ’90s, Curry’s wife left him. His then-teenage daughter Allené stayed with her father to keep him company and because he couldn’t cook or clean. She had been closer to her mother, but became closer to her dad through the hardship.
“He definitely instilled that same sense of community and activity in me,” says Allené, who has organized with anti-violence groups in Roxbury.
Ten years ago, Curry suffered a stroke. He recovered physically, but mentally, his daughter says it took a toll. He’s more erratic and fixated on, even obsessed with, getting justice for that morning in the firehouse.
“He was very laid back,” Allené says about her dad before the stroke. “Now he’s fidgety and always late … But he’ll still give the shirt off his back for somebody.”
Curry has trouble breathing, so his daughter keeps an inhaler ready for him. Part of her wishes her father would move and abandon the cycle of court cases and council hearings that never pan out. “He gets to a certain point, and it feels like he’s making so much headway, and then it just fizzles,” Allené says. “I think that’s what’s messing him up. It’s like starting all over again.” She understands that the lack of his full pension hurts his pride as a father. “Financially he probably thinks he should’ve been able to take care of me.”
In any case, Allené wants her father’s story to be heard. After all this time, she says people should know how difficult it was to be a black firefighter in the early days of legally mandated BFD integration. Especially since the BFD and other city departments still have major problems when it comes to race and diversity.
Rayshawn Johnson first heard Curry’s story after joining the BFD in 1998. After they met in person, the Vulcans president wrote a letter to the City Council during Curry’s pension fight, noting that while people will never know what Curry’s career could have been, the man was nevertheless robbed of a chance to advance.
Speaking about the current environment in the fire department, Johnson remains apprehensive. “The current state of affairs is a disgrace,” he says. “The real problem is hiring practices … White firefighters are getting replaced [by new white recruits], but not the black firefighters.”
According to those who are critical of the system—the Vulcans, a few city councilors, and black clergy members—the hiring preference for veterans is the main reason for a continuing lack of diversity. Combined with the fact applicants only need to live in Boston for one year to qualify for the job, that preference has resulted in people of color, even longtime Boston residents, losing out to newly relocated vets.
Thirty-five years after Curry was burned and more than 40 years after the Beecher decree, diversity is still lacking in most public departments in Boston. According to a 2015 workforce report by the city, Mayor Marty Walsh has increased the number of minorities in his administration compared with the cabinet of the late Mayor Thomas Menino and has been credited for helping bolster ranks in several agencies. Still, last year’s report found the BFD to be among the least diverse departments, while a count of department heads showed “all minority populations are currently underrepresented when compared to the demographics of the city of Boston.”
Last month, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination ordered the Boston Police Department to “cease and desist from the disparate treatment of recruits based on race”—particularly, the BPD training academy was more likely to fire blacks over minor offenses than whites. Black cops are also suing the BPD over what they claim are false positives on drug tests that rely on hair analysis, since researchers have challenged the validity of such tests on account of external exposure to powdered drugs —common in police work—sometimes leading to positive results.
Discussions about residency requirements for city employees, spearheaded by Councilor-at-Large Michael F. Flaherty, took place in the fall of 2014 and last summer, but change hasn’t come. When it comes to certain residency rules, like those for teachers and even administrative positions, some advocate getting rid of requirements altogether. But for cops and firefighters, the City Council may toughen the rules.
Asked about residency requirements, Bonnie McGilpin, a spokesperson from Walsh’s office, said, “The mayor is currently working with Councilor Flaherty and hopes to have an updated proposal for next session. He understands that we must work to ensure that our workforce is diverse and represents our city, while at the same time we are supporting our veterans.” Also asked if Walsh plans to do anything to help Curry, the spokesperson did not respond about the case. With Yancey no longer in office, it will take another councilor to resume his fight at City Hall.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Mr. Curry stopped by a BINJ pop-up newsroom in Dudley Square last year and shared his story with reporters, leading to Alejandro Ramirez pursuing a longer interview with him and his family. For more info on this and other projects, visit medium.com/@binj and follow on Twitter @BINJreports.