Racism claims don't surprise former KCFD employees

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - In the Jackson County Courthouse Wednesday, there was testimony of racism in the Kansas City Fire Department.  Kansas City firefighter Eric Sanders, who is African-American, claims he wasn’t promoted because of the color of his skin and said he was subjected to hearing the “N” word and derogatory comments about African-Americans. He is suing the city and a fire captain for damages.

Former high ranking officers with the KCFD said the allegations aren’t surprising including 79-year-old Arnett William a 26-year Veteran of the Department.

"Discrimination has been on the fire department for years," he said.

When Williams joined the department in the late 1950s, he said he was the only African-American at his station. He said it was difficult going to work because none of the firemen would speak to him.  In the 1970s, Williams would eventually rise to deputy chief and helped start a labor recruitment program for minorities and women.

"Some of things I hear now I thought those things were gone. I thought they didn't exist anymore in the fire service,” Williams said.

Carolyn Mitchell-Pegue is also a 26-year Veteran of KCFD. She retired as a Captain in 2003 and said during her time with the department she heard firefighters use racial slurs at work. She even admitted to using racial slurs in the workplace.

"I wasn't doing it in malice but just jokingly. But just jokingly can get out of hand. They pulled me aside and they said, ‘Carolyn how would you like it if they called you an ‘N’ word?’" she said.

In the collective bargaining agreement between the City of Kansas City, Mo., and Local 42 International Association of Fire Fighters it states, “The City and the Union agree not to discriminate against members because of race, religion, color, ancestry, national origin, sex, disability, marital status, familial status, genetic identity, military service status, sexual orientation or membership in any other protected category under the law.”

Both Mitchell-Pegue and Williams said the department has made a commitment to diversity through training and outreach programs. But they said the problem isn’t the institution as a whole but the culture that exists in fire stations across Kansas City.

"Using a racial slur is not tolerated but nobody reports it either. If no one reports it, who’s going to know?” Mitchell-Pegue said. "A lot of people don't speak up. Most people don’t want to be labeled as a tattle-tale or a whiner.”

The Kansas City Fire Department said it is not commenting on Eric Sanders’ case or claims of racism in the department at the time. Sanders’ case could go to a jury by the end of this week.

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