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New London promotes the Black firefighter it fired eight years ago

Not long after Alfred Mayo, the first Black firefighter hired in New London in more than 30 years, was fired before even reporting to duty, he shared with me some of the anguish he felt.

Mayo, who was fired in late 2011 by then New London Mayor Daryl Finizio, was walked off the grounds of the state firefighting academy two days before he was supposed to graduate.

"I was humiliated more than I have ever been in my life. I had a state police (officer) walking right next to me like I was a damn criminal," Mayo wrote soon after, in a letter to his uncle. "When I went and shook EVERY instructor's hands as I left, (the officer) was right behind me."

"The guys I had grown so close to saw the tears in my eyes ... I kept my head up high and walked across the street to my car and then drove off, while the state cop and those two instructors who made my time there a living hell watched me."

I heard from Mayo this week, in a text blast sent to family and friends, an invitation to the ceremony planned for 3 p.m. Friday at Fire Headquarters on Bank Street, when he will be promoted to lieutenant.

A well-deserved promotion was certainly not something Mayo allowed himself to dream about eight years ago, as he fought against the surviving tentacles of racism still wrapped tightly around the mostly white fire department in a very diverse city.

The only other Black person in the department had been hired more than three decades earlier, under federal integration orders.

From the moment I first heard Mayo tell the story of his firing, I understood the depth of the injustice he had experienced. I've heard a lot of grievances over a long reporting career, but his was one of the clearest I've ever heard.

He wasn't at the top of his class, but he wasn't a bad student. The principal accusation against him, never proven, was that he wrote the class year in wet cement in a new sidewalk.

He was the only Black person in a class of 48. A white student caught cheating on an exam was not fired from his new firefighting job. The instructors might as well have been wearing hooded white robes.

The NAACP intervened and organized protests. The mayor wouldn't back down for months. Mayo hired a lawyer to sue.

It finally too took a state investigation to conclude the firefighting academy had indeed been wrong to red tag Mayo, and he was rehired.

I was pleased to hear Mayo, when I caught up with him by phone this week, say that there has been progress in integrating and improving the New London department since his rehiring, though not enough.

Two more Black firefighters were hired after him. There are more new vacancies and Mayo said he believes the newest chief, Thomas J. Curcio, is committed to increasing diversity.

"He wants it as much as I do. He has that vision for the department," Mayo told me.

The atmosphere of the department has changed over the last eight years, he added, and he no longer feels the kind of animosity he met at first.

"It's been a roller-coaster, mostly positive," he said.

In his new role as an officer, Mayo will move into a supervisory role and help firefighters who work with him in all aspects of the job, from medical assistance to fire suppression. He is literally moving from the back to the front of the firetruck. The promotion follows a competitive process of testing and interviewing.

In a post-George-Floyd world, Mayo said he has continued to be involved with protests and social activism, which he said he feels is an obligation.

"It makes me stronger. I don't want to just get comfortable, and people know me for that," he said. "I'm still a Black man in a car, once I take off my uniform."

This is the opinion of David Collins.

d.collins@theday.com

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