MIAMI (CBSMiami) – It isn’t easy being first. Willie Waters would have told you that, so will his daughter.
“My mother was afraid because she knew the obstacles he would have to go through considering the times,” said Iris Waters Hunter.
Hunter and her husband, Alaric Hunter, remember her father’s legacy. A Miami firetruck bears his name, young firefighters have heard the stories about a determined man who would not give up.
“My father, Willie Waters, was named the first Black firefighter for the City of Miami and the first professional Black firefighter in the State of Florida,” said Hunter.
Raised in Overtown, Waters joined the military and was a trained airplane mechanic when he returned to Miami where aviation was a staple of the economy. He was told there were no jobs for Black people.
“The lady told him you can try the garbage people or you can try with somebody in the county but we don’t hire Negroes. She tore up his application as he went out the door” said Hunter.
But then he caught a break with the City of Miami Fire Department.
“The chief decided he‘d do something different. It was time for a change. So he decided to hire my father. There was an article in the Miami Herald and it said Miami gets first Negro fireman,” said Hunter.
As a firefighter, Waters earned honors and rose through the ranks to Division Chief Management Services. Along the way, he mentored young firefighters.
But his journey was no without pain and barriers. She said he always remembered the cheers in the firehouse on the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There was also harassment from his fellow firefighters, his room at the firehouse was trashed repeatedly.
“Some of the men would say to him we don’t want Negros working with us, I will not ride with him,” said Hunter.
However, there were plenty of white firefighters that embraced Waters throughout his entire career and became lifelong friends.
“He led the way, he opened the door and so many have come behind him that are able to accomplish even greater things than he did,” said Hunter.