First black multi-generational FDNY families celebrate legacy

The Hargett family is one of only two black FDNY families where three generations - grandfather, father and son - have served in the department

By Thomas Tracy
New York Daily News

NEW YORK — When George Hargett stepped into Engine Company 252 in Brooklyn for the first time as an FDNY probationary firefighter, it was March, 1967 -- just three months before the "long, hot summer" where 159 race riots exploded across the U.S., including New York City, Boston, Newark, N.J. and upstate in Buffalo.

In just one month's time, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would address a congregation at Riverside Church in Harlem, demanding an end to the Vietnam War and forever linking the civil rights and peace movements together. A year later, Rev. King would be assassinated in Memphis.

It was tough time to be black in the city -- and it was tougher to be a black firefighter, where the FDNY was seen by many as a symbol of the white status quo.

Never in his wildest dreams did George Hargett, as a busy probie in Bushwick, think that his son would follow in his footsteps -- or that 51 years later, his grandson would too.

But to his great surprise, the Hargetts have become one of the first black multi-generational FDNY families.

"I never thought about it like that," Hargett, 82, told the Daily News. "(My son) Dennis went to school, so I never thought that he would go into the fire department, but he passed the test and he got appointed."

Last month, his grandson Michael, who was already an EMT with the department, graduated from the FDNY fire academy.

Both Hargett and his son stood proudly in their dress uniforms as Michael crossed the stage at the Christian Cultural Center in East New York.

"I told my family, if they see any loose coat buttons on the floor, they're mine, because my chest is swelling up with pride," Hargett said.

There are a handful of black families that have two members in the department -- but it is still rare to find three.

The Hargetts are one of only two black FDNY families where three generations -- grandfather, father and son -- have served in the department.

The other family, the Tylers, also welcomed a third member into its ranks at the same April 18 graduation ceremony.

Retired FDNY Lt. Nathaniel Tyler, 83, and his son, retired Capt. Hector Tyler, 60, cheered as Hector Tyler Jr. was congratulated by Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

"It's definitely an honor," 27-year-old Hector Tyler Jr. said. "It's so surreal ... I'm proud to be here and continue my legacy and the family name," he said. "My dad doesn't show it, but he was excited and proud of me when I went across the stage."

Tyler is starting out his career at Engine 257 in Brooklyn. His father started his career at a ladder company in the same firehouse at Ladder 170.

"Definitely there are a few guys there who remember me coming there as a child," he said.

Firefighter Michael Hargett is also starting out in the house where his father cut his teeth as a probie -- Engine 235 in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

"It's powerful to be where my father started," Hargett, 26, said. "Not only because it was his company, but when you mention the number, everyone always says, 'Wow, that's a good company."

"We drill every day and every day is a learning experience," he said.

Tyler's 83-year-old grandfather Nathaniel, joined the department in 1963 -- four years before the elder Hargett -- and retired in 1990.

"I told him he had to be chief but I was only kidding with him," Nathaniel Tyler said, noting that he retired as a lieutenant and his son retired as a captain. "I was happy that he was doing this. It was a career that I and his father enjoyed."

The same year Nathaniel Tyler joined the department, the Vulcan Society, an association of black FDNY firefighters, gathered 20,000 signatures to make their longtime president Robert Lowery a deputy fire commissioner. In 1966, Mayor John Lindsey made Lowery the city's first black fire commissioner.

As a deputy commissioner, Lowery took steps to increase the number of blacks in the department, and also raised the number of black firefighters assigned to firehouses in black neighborhoods.

When George Hargett became a firefighter a year into Lowery's term, there were already four black firefighters assigned to Engine 252, he recalled.

"It was unique firehouse to work in," Hargett remembered. "Anybody who worked there never forgot their time in 252."

The elder Tyler remembered working through some of the riots of the 1960s -- but the job and the country has changed, he said.

"I was never a victim of discrimination," he said. "I knew it existed, but it didn't directly affect me. When I was there, a woman coming onto the job was a big hassle. There were times when I thought that I would never see my son or my grandson on the job, but things leveled out."

Still, the number of blacks in the FDNY never rose above 650 in a force of about 11,000 until about 2002, when the Vulcan Society filed a landmark lawsuit charging that blacks and Latinos were subjected to disparate treatment in the almost all-male and predominantly white department.

Capt. Hector Tyler retired from the FDNY's Recruitment Section, where Dennis Hargett got to meet him.

"He was my commanding officer," said Dennis Hargett. "I just met his son, but I didn't know that his father and my father were on the job."

Dennis Hargett joined the FDNY in 1983 and retired in 2007.

As a longstanding board member of the Vulcan Society, Hargett knows all about the groundbreaking discrimination lawsuit filed by the association of black FDNY firefighters, which charged blacks and Latinos were subjected to disparate treatment in the almost all-male and predominantly white department.

He retired before the city hammered out the $98 million settlement in 2015 and the FDNY agreeing to give a second chance to several hundred black and Latino applicants who took the test and passed years ago but never got on the job.

Currently, the FDNY says it has 2,100 minority and women firefighters, roughly 25% of the department's firefighting force.

Firefighting runs in his family's DNA, said Hargett, whose three daughters also passed the written FDNY exam, but lost their shot at the academy when the department closed their recruitment list before they were called up.

Hargett admitted he knew a few "unsavory people" in the fire department -- like one would in most occupations.

"This is New York City and you're going to run into that in different places," he said. "But my overall experience in the firehouse was one of family. Once you begin to do the job and people know they can count on you, nobody cares what you look like."

Despite the groundbreaking nature of the Hargett and Tyler families, their legacies weren't highlighted by the FDNY at the April graduation.

The FDNY did mention the two families and their generational milestones on its Instagram page. But at the April ceremony, Commissioner Nigro opted to applaud firefighter Matthew Fiorito, whose mother Marianne Monahan joined the department in 1982 as one of the first women in the FDNY.

"I was extremely disappointed," Hargett said. "I know it was an oversight and that it wasn't personal, but it put a damper on everybody in the beginning."

"When history happens you want it to be noted, just for the record," he said. "A lot of things in this job just slip through the cracks."

Copyright 2018 New York Daily News

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