Retired African-American firefighter may give back FDNY top honor due to racist roots

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Rob Nelson has the details on the FDNY medal controversy.

James Gordon Bennett was a rich and powerful journalist back in the 19th century.

But, like so many other from that era, there's a dark back story to his life.

That darkness has led a distinguished retired fireman to get back on the front lines of a different kind of fight.

88-year-old retired firefighter James Tempro has never been afraid to take a stand.

Back in 1968, while saving a young, unconscious boy from a brutal fire in Bedford-Stuyvesant, he was badly injured during the daring rescue.

"The great thing was to see the child recover," Tempro said.

Now, decades later, Tempro yet again is putting his conviction on the front lines by threatening to give back the FDNY's top honor: the 148-year-old James Gordon Bennett medal.

He earned it for his heroism the day of the fire, the first African-American to ever receive it.

"You have to take a stand somewhere," Tempro said.

A few years ago, Tempro learned through a book that Bennett, a trailblazing journalist and one of the nation's richest and most powerful men and founder of the New York Herald, was also a pro-slavery racist who used his editorials to slur blacks as inferior and wild beasts.

Now with today's controversy over confederate statues, this Bedford-Stuyvesant native felt even more compelled to speak out.

"Here it is 2017 and we're still fighting those battles," Tempro said.

Tempro, who spent 32 years as a firefighter, doesn't want the FDNY to change the name of the medal, but rather change its status as the department's top honor.

"If they take no action, I will respectfully mail my medal back to the fire department," Tempro said.

Some fires are easily extinguished. Others are unseen but burn far longer, far more deeply and can be doused only by conversation and compassion.

"When we have a guy that is stoking the fires of racism in America and division, it's almost now or never to speak out about this," Tempro said.

Related Topics:
politicsracismfdnyNew York CityManhattan
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