Your Voices: Seattle’s first Black firefighter, fire chief shares wisdom at age 90

SEATTLE — This Black History month, KIRO7 is celebrating Chief Claude Harris — Seattle’s first Black firefighter who rose through the ranks to become the city’s first Black fire chief.

His journey was not without major pushback, as well as challenges that are tough to imagine now.

“God has blessed me, I’m still healthy,” Harris said.

Harris stays busy at 90 years young, speaking or making appearances at events.

“So, people haven’t forgotten me,” Harris said.

In fact, Harris is far from forgotten. The chief is frequently celebrated, like at the Seattle Colleges annual MLK event this year.

“Chief Harris, you carried the weight for all who came after you. For this, we say thank you,” said current Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins.

Scoggins detailed some of what Harris fought to overcome. For example, in the shared communal space of the firehouse, Harris only later found out that his fellow firefighters refused to used the same dishes as him.

“His peers did not drink out of the same cups as him, or sleep in the same bed as him,” Scoggins said. “He faced resentment from community members.”

Only near the end of his speech did Scoggins reveal that Harris was in the room. It brought rousing applause and tears from those in the audience.

Harris joined the Seattle Fire Department in 1959 after serving in the Army and working for Boeing.

He didn’t know until after he got the job that he had just become Seattle’s and Washington state’s first Black firefighter.

“Heck, it has been 65 years since I first came in the fire department,” Harris said.

He said he never wanted to be a trailblazer or the one to fight for rights. But he also couldn’t keep quiet.

“OK, I’ve always talked I talk too much,” Harris said. “And that kind of created a problem. So I had to stop talking about the civil rights thing,” he said.

It was a time in Seattle when Harris said some families had never even seen a Black person. He recalled during one fire department outing, what happened when a family walked by.

“And the kid said, ‘Mom, look at the suntan on those people!’” Harris remembered.

He also faced overt racism at job sites. Harris remembers an inspection where a woman would not let him inside.

“She says, ‘I don’t know of any Black firefighters,’” Harris said. “I’m in uniform and got my clipboard and whatnot. She says, ‘You could have stolen that,’” he said. “I was as angry as fish in hot grease.”

On other occasions he’d face threats.

“The guy doesn’t have a permit to be putting the hot tar on the roof and they threaten to throw me off the roof,” Harris said.

Harris says many, many times he almost quit Seattle Fire.

“It’s just hard working with people that have problems with you,” he said.

Harris says slowly, it got better.

Though each time he was promoted, he faced another wave of backlash. But throughout it all, he never stood completely alone.

“Let me say this. There are always good people, even though there are other people that are challenging you,” he said.

One of his white colleagues encouraged him to go for the top job at Seattle Fire.

“I said, ‘I’m just a captain.’ And he says, ‘So what?’ And some other expletive deleted words. And I started thinking about it…and I went for the job,” Harris said.

A lawsuit — and even tactics like changing the test metrics — tried to block his promotion. But Harris prevailed, becoming Seattle’s first Black chief in 1985.

“What do you feel has been the biggest challenge of your time as chief?” KIRO 7′s Deedee Sun asked.

“My biggest challenge is, is getting people to accept one another. And I had a hard time getting a lot of Blacks and other minorities to go for upward mobility,” Harris said.

And on the firefighting front, Harris says the deadly Pang Warehouse Fire of 1995 stands out. The effort to fight the arson killed four firefighters. KIRO 7 covered the fire extensively.

“Oh yeah, I think about it,” Harris said. “Those things still stick with you.”

In fact, Harris said he still drives quite often to visit the Fallen Firefighters Memorial that commemorates the four firefighters killed in the Pang arson, as well as other firefighters who’ve died in the line of duty.

Harris has conquered much.

“I’ve come through some rough cards. Yeah, some tidal waves,” he said.

Now, he has some wisdom to share on the times of today.

“What do you see as something that we still need to work on to make this world a bit better?” Sun asked.

“You know, I see us backing up… Things are like they were when I was 16 years old,” Harris said.

He said he sees why it seems that people can be so quick to judge each other now.

“Everyone is in the community, but they’re separate. I got my money. I’m over here. I got my car, and I’m over here,” Harris said.

From lived experience, he knows what works to overcome that. It all comes down to getting to know your fellow human beings.

That’s why he used to organize staff get togethers at Seattle Fire.

“People were treating each other not as they should. But once they come together, they say, ‘Hey, he’s doing just like I’m doing. Yeah, why should I be so hard on him? Yeah, he’s getting as much hell as I’m catching,’” Harris said. “You have to learn more about people.”

Harris turns 91 this summer.