The Fire Department has renamed its top medal for distinguished service in memory of the Chief of Department who died during the World Trade Center rescue attempts.
In honoring the heroism of Peter J. Ganci, who had been its top-ranking uniformed firefighter, the department simultaneously rid itself of the increasing controversy over the medal having been bestowed for more than 150 years in the name of a racist publisher of the Civil War era.
Spurred by Black Recipient
Three years ago, retired Firefighter James Tempro, who was the first African-American to be awarded what had been named the James Gordon Bennett Medal 100 years earlier, called upon to department to change its name, citing Mr. Bennett's efforts as publisher of the New York Herald to aid the Confederacy during the Civil War while espousing virulently racist views in defending slavery.
He told the Daily News that at the time he received the highest honor given to a firefighter, "I had no idea of the history of Bennett, who he was or what he stood for. But now that I've learned more about his beliefs, that he was a racist who supported slavery, it demeans the medal for me a bit."
He added that it was "time for the Fire Department to change the name. There are so many others more deserving, people of high moral character that should be offered this honor."
According to the FDNY, Mr. Bennett endowed the award after firefighters saved "his country residence."
Spread 'Deeply Racist Beliefs'
"However, James Gordon Bennett also held deeply racist beliefs," according to Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro's Sept. 8 order announcing the name change. "Using his publishing empire, he repeatedly expressed abhorrent and hateful views in full support of slavery. These views have no place in any society, and I believe we must cease including this individual's name, and thereafter his legacy, in an annual celebration."
The order, also signed by Chief of Department Jon Sudnik, continued, "This tremendous honor for our firefighters will no longer be tied to someone who never served this Department, never risked their own life to save life and property, and who advocated despicable actions against others."
Historians say Mr. Bennett's anti-Lincoln rhetoric helped spark the city's violent anti-draft riots in July of 1863, which targeted African-Americans and left hundreds dead.
His perspective was in the political mainstream in a city that was heavily reliant on the South's slave trade and the cotton it produced. In 1861, those long-standing commercial ties prompted New York City Mayor Fernando Wood to ask the City Council to vote to secede from the union in support of "our aggrieved brethren of the Slave States."
Retired Firefighter Khalid Baylor, president of the Vulcan Society, the department's African American fraternal organization, welcomed the name change.
'A Great Development'
"This is a great development for the Department," Mr. Baylor said. "It was an effort started by Mr. Tempro back in 2017 and was worked on in conjunction with past Vulcan President Regina Wilson, and we have worked on it until now. But I want to keep the spotlight on Mr. Tempro, because this is his second award—getting the name changed."
"In recent months the nation has been addressing uncomfortable truths about our history regarding race and racism. The Fire Department is no exception," said James Lemonda, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "The renaming of this award just further emphasizes what it has symbolized to members of this department all along: the most brave, selfless acts by Firefighters and fire officers putting their lives at risk for the safety of others."
He continued, "Members of the FDNY will continue to risk their lives for others regardless of race, color, ethnicity, or creed. Renaming the medal after Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci, who died in the line of duty at the World Trade Center and was the highest-ranking member of the department, just further signifies the commitment and bravery of the members of the department."
Uniformed Firefighters Association President Andy Ansbro said, "The renaming of the medal in honor of Chief Ganci is appropriate and is a testament to Chief Ganci's legacy and sacrifice. It will serve as a reminder to everyone of the enormous risks taken by the recipient during the act in which they earned the medal."
It was the Vulcan Society which filed a discrimination case challenging the fairness of the exam for Firefighter against the City of New York, which in 2007 prompted the Department of Justice under President George W. Bush to follow up with a lawsuit targeting FDNY hiring. After U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis ruled against the city three years later in a scalding decision, the case was settled in 2014 by the de Blasio administration, which agreed to a $98-million settlement and the appointment of a monitor who reports back to Judge Garaufis on the FDNY's compliance.
A Gradual Integration
Mr. Baylor said that the Vulcan Society, which includes civilian employees of the FDNY and Emergency Medical Service workers as well as firefighters, continues to work on unresolved issues surrounding equity and opportunity for advancement within the agency.
At the start of this century, the firefighting force was 90-percent white. Currently, close to 25 percent of firefighters are black or Latino, according to department statistics.
Vincent Variale, president of District Council 37 Local 3621, which represents EMS officers, said the change in the name of the award was long overdue and shouldn't distract attention from what he believes are existing examples of systemic gender bias and racial discrimination within the department.
"Now, they want applause—they are the ones who prevented minorities and females from being promoted and getting equal recognition for their good deeds and heroic actions they have done throughout the years," he said.
He added that despite the July 2019 enactment of a state law requiring that civil service tests be required for the EMS titles of Captain, Deputy Chief, and Division Chief, the FDNY was relying on promotions to those ranks based on "friends and family.”
A Fire Department spokesman responded that it was still waiting for the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to develop exams for those titles.
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