Robert O. Lowery, the first African American to head the fire department of a major American city, died Tuesday in New York City. He was 85.
Lowery was New York's first black fire commissioner. His tenure began as racial tensions divided both the Fire Department and the city. Appointed in 1965 by Mayor John V. Lindsay, he served for three years, struggling to improve relations within the department while battling a rising number of arson cases in minority neighborhoods, where the firefighters--most of whom were white--were often greeted with bricks and other weapons.
Blacks held about 600 of the 13,500 positions in the Fire Department, a number that Lowery sought to raise. He increased the number of blacks in leadership roles, as well as the number of black firefighters assigned to black neighborhoods.
Lowery grew up in Buffalo and Harlem. Economic hardships thwarted his college plans and dream of becoming a lawyer. He worked as an usher and subway conductor before he was hired as a firefighter in 1941, when blacks in the department were not allowed to share sleeping quarters with whites or use the same kitchen utensils.
In 1946, Lowery was promoted to fire marshal, and in 1961, a year after being honored for apprehending an armed arsonist, he was made an acting lieutenant in the Bureau of Fire Investigation. Lowery was a deputy fire commissioner when Lindsay chose him to lead the department.