Hidden History: Oldest living African-American Memphis firefighter to be honored for bravery

Hidden History
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — One of the oldest living African-American fire fighters in the city of Memphis is being honored.

Along the walls at the Pioneers of Black Firefighters headquarters hangs the history of African-American Memphis firemen dating back to the first 12 in 1955.

The organization was formed in 1973 to represent African-American firemen who felt they were being treated unfairly in the department. 

The organization said Rozelle Payton is the oldest living African-American fireman from the Memphis Fire Department. Payton said despite his struggles, he encourages everyone to never stop fighting.

Payton said he was the 19th black fireman to join the force in 1968 and only one of four in his class. 

“My daddy told me it doesn’t make him any difference, but my mother told me just be careful, it’s a dangerous job,” Payton said.

Payton said he stayed with the department for more than 30 years and was promoted to lieutenant midway through. 

But Payton said the journey wasn’t easy.

“I told the captain, ‘That old man calling me the n-word, and I don’t like it,'” Payton said. “He said, ‘Nah, he don’t really mean it.'”

Despite his struggles, Payton said it never bothered him. Instead, it motivated him to work harder.

“What I would do, I would take those books, those setup books we had, and I would study those books, and I would just study to myself,” Payton said.

Little did he know, someone on the outside was watching. 

“He lived two doors down from me on Azelia, and so I was very proud to know that someone I knew was actually doing this,” said Ron Mitchell, Sr., with Pioneers of Black Firefighters.

Mitchell soon followed in Payton’s steps. Now they work side-by-side, supporting each other and  other blacks in the Memphis Fire Department.

Both men said just like others before them, they hope they can inspire and motivate others to move forward and keep the blaze burning

Later this month, the Pioneers of Black Firefighters will host a ceremony to honor Payton. The time and date have yet to be announced.

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