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Roanoke’s first Black firefighter reminisces on his career

Rawleigh Quarles also became Roanoke’s first Black fire chief

When Rawleigh Quarles joined the Roanoke Fire Department, the city had just started to desegregate.
When Rawleigh Quarles joined the Roanoke Fire Department, the city had just started to desegregate.

ROANOKE, Va. – When Rawleigh Quarles joined the Roanoke Fire Department, the city had just started to desegregate. By the time he retired, he broke through every color barrier within the department.

“If you know you’re the most qualified, and they want to give it to someone less, be stalwart and steadfast and resolute in what you’re going for,” Quarles said.

Quarles was one of the first two Black firefighters hired by the department in 1963. He said he had dreamed of becoming a firefighter since he was a child, but wondered if his skin color would hold him back.

“That’s what I wanted to do, but I said, ‘I never saw any minority firefighters,’” Quarles said.

Quarles eventually rose through the ranks and became Roanoke’s first Black fire chief in 1989.

“I was the first Black lieutenant, the first Black deputy chief, the first Black chief fire marshal,” Quarles remembered. “Every promotion that I achieved, I was the first of every position, because I was the only one there.”

Quarles said he faced several challenges through his career because of racism and isolation.

“The bias. The n-words being used in my presence. Firefighters said at the beginning they would work with me, but not eat with me,” Quarles said. “I can’t help but think about the price I had to pay. You turn the other cheek if you have to. You love people that hate you.”

He vividly remembers one incident his first year on the job that showed how much prejudice he had to overcome.

“There was a fire next to the Texas Tavern. It was bitterly cold, so we all went in for coffee,” Quarles said. “The restaurant was still segregated. The rest of the guys got served in porcelain mugs, while they gave me my coffee in a styrofoam cup.”

Quarles also faced struggles in the department due to his race, including when he was passed over for a promotion to fire marshal in the 1970s. He brought a discrimination lawsuit against the City of Roanoke following the incident; they settled out of court, but he received the promotion and back pay.

“In the four years while the lawsuit was going on, I could feel myself being shut out of things in the office and in the community,” Quarles said.

Quarles retired from his position as fire chief in 1995 in order to serve as a reverend at Staunton Avenue Church of God in northwest Roanoke. He remains Roanoke’s only Black fire chief.

“The more they challenged me, the more determined I was,” Quarles said. “Those coming after me won’t have to go through this and bear the brunt of this racial bias.”