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Two decades have passed, but for Irene Smith, the pain remains as fresh as it was on that fateful day. The years may have dulled some of the edges of her anguish, but the memory of her son, Leon W. Smith Jr., one of 12 Black firefighters during 9/11, still burns brightly in her heart.
Leon Smith’s aspirations were simple but profound – he dreamt of becoming a firefighter. Growing up in the heart of Brooklyn, New York, the Smith family lived directly across from a firehouse. Irene Smith fondly remembers how she always knew where to find her son. “He knew his calling even then,” she recalled a touch of pride in her voice.
In the heartache and sorrow that followed the 9/11 attacks, Irene Smith found herself a member of a tragic sorority – mothers who had watched their sons grow up to be heroes but also fall victim to the devastation. However, she belonged to a smaller, overlooked group whose stories of loss mirror the larger FDNY family’s pain.
Leon Smith became the driver for Ladder Company 118 in Brooklyn, a position he cherished. On September 11, 2001, when the world watched in horror as the Twin Towers crumbled, Leon was among the 343 brave New York City firefighters who responded to the call of duty and lost their lives.
“In Leon’s company there were eight firefighters that got killed,” Smith said. “They found the remains of six of them. They have never found my son. I have a tombstone on an empty grave. One of these days I’ll have them, and I’ll bury him. I’ll never give up.”
The Black Firefighters of 9/11
The stories and faces of those Black firefighters who made the ultimate sacrifice have been conspicuously absent from the photo exhibits and memorial projects dedicated to the fallen firefighters.
As an agency of New York City, FDNY was devastated. We lost 343 good men that day. Brave men. I knew dozens of them personally. I miss them all. However, we also know that racism is not only a permanent fixture of this country but also that it doesn’t often take a break. Therefore, it was no surprise when the 12 Black firefighters who died that day didn’t seem to get the same recognition as the White firefighters who also gave their lives. They were not featured in the mainstream media in proportion to the numbers of them who died. An early, blatant example of how Black lives didn’t matter in this tragedy was kicked off by, no surprise, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani. On the highly anticipated post-9/11 episode of “Saturday Night Live,” the show opened with Giuliani appearing on the famous stage surrounded by more than two dozen first responders (mostly New York City firefighters) in uniform. Not one was Black. A Black, Brown, yellow, red or female face was nowhere to be found.Capt. Paul Washington
While the FDNY received immense public support after 9/11, it has grappled with the ongoing challenge of recruiting and retaining firefighters of color.
With approximately 14,000 members, the department remains overwhelmingly White, with just about 3 percent of its firefighters being Black – a proportion that has remained stagnant since the attacks.
Irene Smith candidly reveals that her son Leon faced relentless harassment in his early days within the Fire Department of New York. The trials he endured included acts of sabotage, such as oil pouring into his boots and his boots being run over by a truck. These efforts aimed to break his spirit, but Leon’s determination remained unshaken.
For Black firefighters and critics of the FDNY, racism and discrimination have been enduring issues within the department. Shortly after 9/11, the Vulcan Society, an organization for New York’s Black firefighters, organized a memorial ceremony for the 12 who had fallen. However, their fliers were defaced with hurtful comments, reflecting the deep-seated prejudice.
A second blow, the courts denying justice
In recent years, the courts have ruled against the FDNY, finding discriminatory hiring practices that a federal judge is working to rectify. Craig Kelly, a retired firefighter and grief counselor, played a pivotal role in bringing the stories of these 12 Black firefighters to light in the little-known documentary “All Our Sons,” released in 2004 and narrated by Alfred Woodard.
The Black Mothers of 9/11
Through the pain and loss, mothers like Irene Smith, Laurel Jackson, and Ruth Powell have displayed incredible strength.
Irene Smith, in particular, has tirelessly worked to honor her son’s memory. Her efforts led to the co-naming of their block in Brooklyn as Firefighter Leon W. Smith, Jr. Way, and her church continues to provide college scholarships in Leon’s name.
These mothers, both Black and White, have found solace in each other’s company. They lean on one another for support, meeting regularly to share updates and memories. The bond forged through their shared sorrow remains unbreakable, a testament to the enduring love and strength of the families of the fallen.