In 1970, FDNY Commissioner Robert O. Lowery, right, has a...

In 1970, FDNY Commissioner Robert O. Lowery, right, has a conversation with members of the fire salvage unit. Credit: FDNY

Just before being put in charge of the FDNY — becoming the first Black person to head a major American city’s firefighting force — Robert O. Lowery said there was more at stake than in the typical appointment.

“Let’s face it,” he said in 1965. “There will be people watching, both white and Negro, simply because I'm a Negro.”

On Monday, the FDNY named its headquarters’ auditorium in memory of Lowery, who led the department from 1966 to 1973. He died in 2001 at 85.

The room — at FDNY headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn — is now called the Robert O. Lowery Auditorium. Inside, Lowery’s jacket from his firefighting days is framed on display.

“Commissioner Lowery helped open the door for others. He inspired young, Black New Yorkers to join the FDNY. Being the first meant that he made it possible for others to be the first of their own," Laura Kavanagh, the FDNY's first female fire commissioner, said in the lobby moments before the unveiling of the name above the auditorium.

Lowery joined the department in 1941, initially assigned to Ladder Co. 34 in Manhattan, according to an FDNY news release. At the time, Black firefighters weren’t allowed to use firehouse kitchen utensils and had to sleep in separate areas. In 1946, he was transferred to the Bureau of Fire Investigation and served as a fire marshal for 17 years. He was also president — several times — of the Vulcan Society, a fraternal organization of Black FDNY firefighters.

In 1961, he was appointed acting lieutenant, and then in 1963, deputy fire commissioner, tasked with helping recruit more nonwhite firefighters.

Robert O. Lowery's daughters Leslie Lowery and Gertrude Irwin attend a ceremony...

Robert O. Lowery's daughters Leslie Lowery and Gertrude Irwin attend a ceremony on Monday naming the auditorium at the FDNY's Downtown Brooklyn headquarters after their father. Credit: Jeff Bachner

On Monday, his daughters were at the ceremony, including 75-year-old Gertrude Irwin, who lives in the building in Manhattan where he lived, across from the cemetery where his ashes were buried and on the same street as Ladder Co. 34. She recalled being on a bus with Lowery and other firefighters heading in 1963 to the March on Washington. 

"It was very important for them to be there at that time to protest for better conditions for people of color in America," she said.

On Jan. 1, 1966, Lowery was appointed by Mayor John V. Lindsay to be fire commissioner.

Lowery’s tenure overlapped with a time when the FDNY would battle nearly nonstop arson of apartments in minority neighborhoods. Some of the arsonists were believed to be slumlords looking to collect insurance; some were tenants seeking to take advantage of a housing law that gave priority for subsidies to victims of fire. He also had to handle labor strife and numerous false alarms. His 1969 ruling to prohibit city firefighters from belonging to volunteer firefighting departments in the suburbs — affecting thousands of Long Islanders — was overturned in 1971 by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.

Lowery resigned in 1973.

Despite years of efforts to diversify the department — including a court intervention to influence the Civil Service test — the FDNY’s firefighters are 76% white, followed by 13% Hispanic, 8% Black, 2% Asian, and 0.8% of another race or ethnicity, according to a 2022 City Council document. About 98% are men, the document says.

Asked Monday by a reporter why firefighter diversity matters, Kavanagh said: "We work for the city, and that's what the city looks like, and so, you know, the mission, I think, for any agency is to represent the city it serves."

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