Monday, February 8, 2021

Elmira's First Black Firefighter

 By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

In 2007, Thomas J. Reid, Jr. was interviewed about his status as Elmira’s first Black firefighter. His reply that “I suppose I was a trailblazer…” reflects only part of his story. He was born in 1923 to Viola and Thomas J. Reid Sr. The family had two daughters and would add a second son a few years later.

Reid Sr. was a World War I veteran, and the family lived on Elmira’s Eastside. After returning from the war, he worked driving trucks for Remington Rand. Reid Jr. attended Elmira Free Academy, where in addition to his studies he lettered in varsity football, basketball and track. He graduated from EFA in 1941. His standout sports achievements earned him an athletic scholarship to Lincoln University, the nation’s first historically Black college and university, located in Pennsylvania. At Lincoln he played both football and basketball and majored in physical education.

It was wartime and just a year into his college career he was inducted into the Army. He left for boot camp, however due to a previous sports injury, he was honorably discharged one month later and returned to Lincoln University. Sometime before 1945 he married Wilhelmina Woods, a nursing student from Tennessee. She went on to pursue graduate studies in nursing at Syracuse University. The couple had a daughter and settled in Elmira. Over the next few years, they had two more children.

In 1950 Thomas J. Reid, Jr. joined the Elmira Fire Department, he was the first African American firefighter hired by the department. Wilhelmina worked for the County Health Department as a public health nurse. She also taught health classes and served on the Board at the Neighborhood House. In the fall of 1963 Wilhelmina died leaving her widowed husband with three young children to raise. Reid remarried in 1965 to Marjorie, a widow with three young children of her own. Marjorie worked at Iszard’s Department Store.

While he was with the Fire Department, Reid received two commendations. In 1961 he was credited with saving a woman’s life, carrying her out of a burning building. During the rescue he suffered smoke inhalation and was hospitalized. In 1965 he was named Fireman of the Year for rescuing an elderly man who had fallen asleep while smoking. This rescue was intense, and he and another firefighter suffered severe smoke inhalation.

Star Gazette photo
After 35 years of service, Reid retired from the Elmira Fire Department in 1985. It would be fifteen years before the second African American firefighter was hired.

Whether or not he was influenced by his father’s work driving trucks for a living, Reid was always interested in anything with wheels. That fascination was part of the reason that in addition to firefighting, he was a successful inventor. He enjoyed creating things with wheels.

One of his early inventions was for a sled wagon with front and rear steering capable of turning 360 degrees. He received US and Canadian patents for this vehicle he called the Cen Ten Ion 200.

Another invention he received a patent for was an inline skate:

Patent drawing for inline skate

The skate had front and back wheels in addition to two center wheels.

After he retired from the Fire Department, he invented a scooter bicycle, seen here and modeled by his wife Marjorie. It was produced for many years by a bicycle manufacturer in Pennsylvania.

Star Gazette photo
One of the last inventions Reid came up with, he built himself in the early 2000s. It was a one-of-a-kind bike designed to accommodate riders of two different heights. He and Marjorie often rode it around town.

Thomas and Marjorie were married for forty-six years before he died in 2012 at the age of 89.  Marjorie died six years later in late 2018.

Thomas J. Reid, Jr. was a man with various talents: an elected member of Elmira’s Sports Hall of Fame, the first Black Fire Fighter in Elmira, and a successful inventor holding multiple patents.

For more about the family read our blog The Reids of Elmira, and listen to Wilbur Reid’s interview archived as part of our Black Oral History project.


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