Retired FDNY Captain Vincent W. Julius, one of the department’s most high-profile African-American firefighters during the city’s “War Years,” died Sunday after a long illness. He was 88.
Julius, born in New York in 1927, was the younger brother of Reginald Julius, who also became a firefighter.
The two men, both WWII veterans who served overseas — Reginald in the Navy and Vincent in the Army — were among just a handful of black firefighters who served in the city’s outer boroughs during the unrest of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Julius became a captain of Ladder 112 in Bushwick in the late ‘70s, where fires bigger than three alarms were called a “Bushwick Sunrise.” He retired in Feb. 1985 after a distinguished career.
“You go into a burning building, down a hallway, you see what we call the red demon, and that red demon's fingers are reaching out for you, and they're saying, 'C'mon. C'mon. I've got something for you. C'mon.' And you put your head down and you keep moving,” he said in the book.
Julius lived his life as he fought fires — with an eye always turned toward progress.
He was an active and vocal member of the Vulcan Society and served as president of the organization in the 1970s, helping to buy its current headquarters, a brownstone on Eastern Parkway.
Julius was also a co-founder of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters in 1969. The group had its first conference in 1970.
An ardent supporter of Civil Rights, Julius played a critical role in getting the city’s fire unions to denounce the fire departments of southern cities who turned fire hoses on peaceful marchers and protestors.
In 1963, Julius — by then an officer — asked the Uniformed Fire Officers Association to write a resolution condemning the use of hoses on civilians, especially children.
The UFOA’s all-white executive board agreed — but when it presented the resolution to the membership, it was voted down, Julius said.
Even though he was one of the few black officers in the union — and a new member — Julius spoke up, and forced the board to pass the resolution anyway.
“I’m very proud of that,” Julius told Birmingham NPR station WBHM last year. “It was a good move, a tough move. I took some brick bats for it, but who the hell cares? Life is made to take adversaries.”
He was the first black firefighter appointed to the FDNY Honor Emergency Fund, which gave out financial assistance to needy families of fallen smoke eaters.
In the turbulent 1970s, part of the FDNY’s busiest stretch known as the “War Years,” he was the department’s community liaison to underserved neighborhoods — places where the fires burned highest and firefighters often found themselves pelted with rocks and garbage from tenement rooftops.
When women moved to join the all-male Bravest in the late 1970s, Julius was their most outspoken champion, said his longtime colleague and friend, James T. Lee.
“He was an organization man, he did a tremendous amount for every organization he joined,” said the 85-year-old retired FDNY firefighter.
“Vinnie always kept the fire burning for justice,” Lee said.
A viewing and funeral will be held Monday, May 16 at 10 a.m. at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church, at 75 Pine Lakes Parkway South in Palm Coast, Florida.