The Fire Department, which has struggled at times in the past on matters of tone and timing when it comes to racial issues, was pitch-perfect and spot-on with the decision, announced shortly before the anniversary of 9/11, to rename its top medal in memory of former Chief of Department Peter Ganci.
Since 1869, the top honor for distinguished service bore the name of James Gordon Bennett, a 19th-century newspaper publisher who endowed the award after firefighters saved his country home from a blaze. It had become increasingly difficult to justify presenting the medal with his name attached because, whatever his good qualities, Mr. Bennett was a virulent racist who during the Civil War used the pages of the New York Herald to champion the Confederacy after its member states broke away from the Union in a quest to preserve slavery.
At the start of this century, the firefighting force was still 90 percent white, with a hiring exam that was not truly job-related a big part of the reason. There were other, less-noticed factors, including a culture in some firehouses that made it acceptable as recently as the late 1980s for there to be a designated "black bed" that was reserved for reassigned African-American firefighters who might stay overnight.
The Federal lawsuit that resulted in a Judge's finding that the Firefighter test had been discriminatory was filed by the Justice Department under President George W. Bush, a Republican. After Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration appealed the ruling of U.S. District Judge Nicholas Garaufis, Mayor de Blasio in his first year in office settled the lawsuit for $98 million, with a Federal monitor continuing to oversee the department.
Standards haven't crumbled, as some predicted they would. And the Vulcan Society of black firefighters, which initiated the complaint that led to the Justice Department's action, continued to chip away at the vestiges of a culture that was slow to change.
In 2017, a retired firefighter, James Tempro, who in 1969 was the first African-American recipient of the Bennett Medal, made an issue of the person in whose name it was presented. The immense pride he felt at having earned it was undercut once he learned something about Mr. Bennett's beliefs and the use of his considerable power as a publisher to promote them.
Mr. Tempro told the Daily News then 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."
The top command of the FDNY—Fire Commissioner Dan Nigro and Chief of Department Jon Sudnik—shared that belief. And they had in mind for the renaming someone who fit Mr. Tempro's description well in Chief Ganci. His long, distinguished career, in which he rose to the department's highest uniformed, ended tragically when he was among those who died during the World Trade Center rescue efforts on 9/11. One of the symbolic strengths of the FDNY--that even its top commanders will get involved at some fire scenes--cost it dearly on that day: First Deputy Commissioner Bill Feehan was among the other high-ranking officials who perished when the Twin Towers came crashing down.
Honoring Chief Ganci in this fashion solved a gnawing problem so neatly that even in an agency known for its contentiousness, it would be hard to imagine anyone questioning the transition, on substance or symbolism.
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