Living legend reflects on pioneering firefighting history

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OKLAHOMA CITY— We recently spoke with an 87-year-old living legend who was one of the first African American firefighters in our state.

What he did here ended up having an impact on fire departments across the nation.

In 1951, Carl Holmes began three decades of service with the Oklahoma City Fire Department.

Holmes said, “We developed some of the sharpest dudes in firefighting that Oklahoma has ever had.”

He was one of the first 12 African American firefighters in the state.

While he was battling fires, he was also battling racism and discrimination.

He said, “Losing was not on your mind. Now we paid a hell of a price.”

Through the years of jumping on and off the fire engines, he climbed to the top of the professional ladder by becoming assistant fire chief.

At the time, he was second in command of a staff of 1,200.

Holmes said, “It was something you had to do. And you had to do it under the most strenuous system you had ever seen before.”

With pride, he worked and set an example for his men and only expected excellence.

He said, “I look at it strictly as it had to be done and whatever the task was in front of me, to get it done.”

He knew he was creating a path for other minorities.

Holmes said, “What was important out of everything that I’ve done is to make it better so the next people won’t have to deal with that.”

During his years of service, he created a new model for the department to promote firefighters.

“It was just a fairer, more accurate system of selecting people for promotions. It takes all the side stuff out.”

Those promotions eliminated race, gender and favoritism.

Instead, it measured a person’s ability to perform certain tasks.

Holmes said, “What you are measuring is that individual’s ability to this series of things.”

The model developed by Holmes in Oklahoma City was later copied all over the country and is still used today.

Throughout his career, he received numerous awards but one was extremely unique.

A trophy that immediately became a source of contention within the firefighting ranks.

He and 11 other African American firefighters in our state had earned the award for excellence.

His white coworkers were outraged and the trophy was taken away.

Holmes said, “They loaded it up and hauled it off it just disappeared.”

It wasn’t seen again for decades until new stations were being built.

It was restored and now sits in a place of prominence at the new Station 6.

Holmes’ work boots and the fire coat that bears his name is on display at the Oklahoma History Center.

Even at a point where he could sit back and reflect, he doesn’t pat himself on the back.

He said, “I never looked at it as satisfaction.”

“Everything I’ve ever done has never, never been for Carl.”