ST PETERSBURG, Fla — In honor of Black History Month St. Petersburg Fire Rescue is recognizing the five men who became pioneers for change, Riley Preston Floyd, Eddie Utley, Stanton Singletary, Alphonso Brown, and the late Eugene Curry.
“We never considered ourselves pioneers. We were looking for jobs,” said Singletary.
They are the first black firefighters hired at the St. Pete fire department. That was back in 1972, seven years after the courageous 12 joined the St. Pete PD, and four years after the end of the Civil Rights movement.
Though the five pioneers were happy to be firefighters, being first wasn’t easy.
“I had problems day one,” said Singletary.
All five men grew up in the same neighborhood. Four of them went to school together, but they weren’t allowed to work together. Back in those days, the department only allowed one black firefighter per station and shift. That left all of them alone. The white firefighters didn’t want them there, and they made sure they let them know.
“They weren’t speaking to me,” Singletary said. “They wouldn’t sit in the same room with me. I dropped my Kentucky box on the table and everybody got up and left.’
Utley said the men treated them like they weren’t human. The n-word was used multiple times a day, everyday.
“You had to be tough to hang on this job and that’s just the bottom of the line,” said Utley.
The treatment didn’t exist just ins the fire stations. They also got it from the people they were risking their black lives to save.
“We had a head on collision involving an elderly white lady,” Floyd recounts. “She was hammered, head through the windshield. She looked up and saw me, and said ‘“I don’t want that N touching me.’”
By the time the white firefighters were able to get her out of the car, she died.
The Pioneers believe the ultimate goal was run them out. Floyd said “They wasn’t gonna run us [out].”
The first few years were tough, but eventually things started to change.
They said the white and black firefighters found a way to trust each other as far as working together, and some even formed friendships. Fast forward to 2022 and the department is much more inclusive and diverse. The new generation of firefighters give all the credit to Floyd, Utley, Singletary, Brown, and Curry; the pioneers.
“It was a good job, and it was worth it,” Utley said. “I’d do it all over again.”
That’s a sentiment all the men share. But they made it a point to say there’s still more work to be done. They would like to see even more diversity within the department.