Celebrating The Legacy of Jimmy Jews
By Dianne Anderson
Both trailblazers in their own right, Jimmy and Veatrice Jews were the original local power couple, battling incessant racism from the South to San Bernardino.
Jimmy Jews was San Bernardino’s first Black fireman. Veatrice, a chemistry and microbiology major in Louisiana came to work as a scientist for a one-year clinical lab in what was considered integrated back then, a class of 98% white male.
She talks about how her husband dealt with bigotry head-on in the workplace. It was a fact of life.
“He would say I’m going to act like a duck and let it roll off my back. He knew he had to live with it and he was there to stay. They weren’t going to push him out,” she said.
When he was first hired by the city fire department in 1971, his bigoted peers wanted him to sleep in another area of the facility, away from the other firefighters.
He stood up to them.
“They didn’t want him to sleep where the rest of the firefighters slept, that he would sleep in another place. He said no. I’ll be sleeping where the rest sleep. He had to intentionally keep a positive attitude because after a while it would get exhausting,” she said.
After years at the department unsuccessfully vying for the position of captain, she said the late community activist, Dr. Juanita Scott helped her husband get what he deserved. A lawsuit was threatened, and he soon got the position.
“They kept having him as acting captain, each time they’d say no you didn’t pass the test. But, if you can be an acting captain, you must already know the job,” she said.
Climbing each rung of the ladder to hit the Black ceiling requires endurance. Back then, changing the status quo was more methodical than today, but it was the only way to get good-paying jobs that employed few or no Blacks.
Jimmy was from Alabama, Veatrice from Louisiana.
“You knew that you could only use colored-only water fountains, or you can go in this building, but you go around the back,” she said. “It was in your face wherever you went. To survive you learned to deal with it, otherwise you wouldn’t live.”
Some things have changed — on the surface.
“Here you can go in the front door, the perception is that it’s okay, but what is going on behind closed doors?” she said.
Jimmy Jews was one of only two or three Black policemen at the time, and had requested a transition into the firefighter position. Blacks were often denied work in the fire department under the guise that they couldn’t pass the test, she said.
Both she and her husband opened doors long closed tight to Blacks in San Bernardino. For that reason, there was also a time when Jimmy was under the proverbial microscope.
“Someone came and said, ‘They’re watching you,’” Veatrice Jews told the Precinct Reporter in a prior interview. “They contacted his boss. It wasn’t easy for him.”
Jimmy Jews passed away in November.
Stan Futch, president of the Westside Action Group, said Jews opened jobs for the few Blacks that came after him, and it didn’t come without a fight.
Futch, also a retired fireman in the Riverside Fire Department, started out as a recruiter at that city department.
“It took me 20 years before I could become an engineer. That was the system they had at the time,” Futch said.
He had tried to recruit Jews as a battalion chief after an opening in the department, which only had about ten Black employees of 144 on the floor.
“For the times, I thought we were doing well, but the fact is it was never good. Even today, it’s not good,” he said.
Jews was retiring out of his captain position in the San Bernardino Fire Department, and tested well, Futch said.
But even there, testing didn’t come without a fight. As a process, testing took about a year back then. According to the department, he tested poorly, but an internal investigation turned up a different result.
“They found out something was going on, they skipped [promoting] three guys to put a white guy in. The two Hispanic guys filed a grievance,” he said. “They found out that Jimmy had done very well, but some shenanigans were going on in the city.”
Futch tried to tap Jews once more to go after the Batallion position, as he had already retired from the San Bernardino city department in 1996.
“He said there’s always that [sham]. I don’t want to get into another fight,” Futch said.
He said the Black firefighters of the region started meeting to strategize and participate in the Black History Parade, of which Jews was the highest-ranking at the time.
After his death, Futch said the fire department showed up for the burial to give a nice ceremony.
Long-time community activist, Beverly Jones-Wright, was close to the Jews family, and said that his contribution to the Inland Empire cannot be underestimated.
“The new fire chief made his presentation, and said he wouldn’t have missed it for anything in the world because Jimmy was just that valuable to the heritage of the fire department,” she said.
Ms. Jones Wright also spoke at Jews home-going ceremony.
“Jimmy was the first Black fireman, and first Black fire captain. He worked for the city police department,” she said. “I can only imagine trying to work for the police department during the 60s.”
Eventually other Black firefighters made it to the department, which more than likely is because Jews helped them in the door, she said. He had also served on the city’s Affirmative Action Board under contention that the city was not doing enough to get Black cops and Black firemen into positions.
She also fondly remembers the Black History Parade when they first saw the fire trucks roll in with Black firemen in the front seat. It was a wonder to behold.
“We were astonished. They were some fine brothers on the truck, we were like where did they come from? We didn’t know they had that many,” Wright laughs. “That was the highlight of our day to see the Black firefighters come through.”