Man stood strong as fire, racism raged on

This screenshot from a North Charleston District Fire Department training video filmed during the '80s shows Charles Middleton jumping from a fire truck to help extinguish a blaze.

Charles Middleton stirs from slumber, seemingly troubled by the thoughts racing through his mind. A gentle touch from his wife sets him back at ease.

The repeat occurrence often goes undiscussed by the North Charleston couple. But after 30 years of being by his side, Middleton's wife, Louise Gerideau, said she's come to associate her husband's restless nights with the flames and destruction that fill his past.

For 24 years, Middleton dashed into burning buildings and saved lives as a firefighter in North Charleston. The man prided himself on his girth, his strength and his courage to do the job.

Age and a heart condition long ago forced Middleton, 74, to walk away from the work that he loved. A stroke would also steal much of his speech and his short-term memory.

Middleton's legacy endures, however, having made his mark in 1969 as one of the then North Charleston Public Service District's first black firefighters. As the only black in a group of seven men who worked the station where he was assigned, Middleton had to go through the crucibles of facing flames and racism.

Five years may have passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but local minorities were still fighting for representation in public office and a step up the jobs ladder from the lowest rung. Charleston County schools had only been integrated for about six years and area police and fire departments were still mostly, if not all white, which, at least in Charleston and North Charleston, they remain to this day.

Middleton said he never thought of himself as a trailblazer, but he and others were instrumental in opening doors previously closed to blacks.

Middleton recalled walking into some fires with merely a handkerchief over his face - a shortage of air masks meant he would be the one to go without.

It wasn't uncommon for the men he worked beside to sneer and call him the N-word, he said.

Bonds later developed as the men routinely placed their lives in each other's hands. Middleton said he grew to consider each one of those men a brother.

"He earned the respect of those men. They learned to love this man," his wife said.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey said Middleton's role as one of the first blacks in fire service helped effect change in the North Area and paved the way for Leonard Judge to become the city's first black fire chief in 2007.

"Charles always had a big heart for helping others, which made the fire service a natural fit. He has represented the community well, during his years as a firefighter and since in retirement," Summey said.

Middleton's hiring came during a tumultuous time in Charleston's history and mirrored larger efforts to steer the city out of centuries of racial discord and systematic discrimination.

Federal intervention was often needed to force local compliance even years after the Civil Rights Act went into effect, said Millicent Brown, an associate professor of history at Claflin University.

In 1963, Brown, the daughter of J. Arthur Brown, a former state president of the NAACP, made history as the main plaintiff in a lawsuit that eventually desegregated the Charleston County School District. The remainder of the decade overflowed with similar stories, she said.

"This is a barrier-breaking time. A lot of the demonstrations that we had involved encouraging the local downtown merchants to hire blacks. There were many events going on to integrate schools, to recognize the first to be hired, or the first to be promoted. All of this is happening at the same time. The whole era was filled with finally getting Charleston and South Carolina to comply with the Constitution and with the Supreme Court. We were very slow in making that shift that was being made mid-century," Brown said.

Each tale of integration is significant, Brown said, but she questioned whether breaking the barrier was enough to bring about lasting change.

"Yes, you had the first, but how many followed them? You had a first on the police force, or the fire department, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the thinking of the community and those who had positions changed. Tokenism is not the same as structural change," Brown said.

Civil Rights activist Bill Saunders said he believes more work needs to be done to diversify workforces and improve race and labor relations in today's society.

Forty-five years after North Charleston hired its first black firefighters, 42 of the Fire Department's 225 firefighters are black - about 19 percent in a city whose population, according to the 2010 census, is 47 percent black. Of Charleston's 324 active and sworn firefighters, 25 are black. Eight percent in a city where a quarter of the population is black.

"The thing that bothers me the most is that we are almost back to the same place we were back then. ... We've got a hell of a lot to be proud of, but as I look around I really believe things are getting worse and worse," Saunders said. "In some ways you can blame the black leadership, and I'm included in that. After we made some improvement, we stopped and assumed everything else would fall into place."

In 1969, Saunders and other community leaders tackled discriminatory practices, unequal pay and institutional harassment in Charleston by organizing the Medical College Hospital (now MUSC) worker's strike of 1969. Coretta Scott King marched down Ashley Avenue with strikers during the 113 day protest.

A change in leadership at the Charleston Police Department in the months before the strike helped mollify the tension throughout the city, Saunders said. Retired Marine John F. Conroy led the force in a way that was respectful to all involved, he said.

"The kind of suffering from police - you could just get beat up any time, or killed. People were more afraid of the officer than the criminal," Saunders said of the department's leadership prior to the late '60s. "When Conroy came in in 1968, he did everything straight up with everybody. Although he put me in jail, he did it straight up.

"(Conroy) told all the police officers, 'Nobody fire a shot in this city unless I authorize it.' And the respect - he would meet with the leaders of the community to ask us what we thought needed to happen. It made it so a lot of people could respect the law enforcement and not be afraid of the police."

The hospital strike shut down much of Charleston in the middle of tourist season, prompting local business leaders to help bring about an end to the conflict, Saunders said. And with their support, the predominantly white, male leadership that had ruled the city began to taper off, he said.

"At that point, blacks began to get elected to public office, the County Council and the city government. ... That's when blacks began to become a part of the fire departments, EMS and all of these other places that they didn't occupy before," Saunders said.

For Middleton, odd jobs laying cement preceded his decision to join the Fire Department.

A pay raise and a hefty benefits package attracted the then 28-year-old.

The practicality behind his decision gradually transformed into a passion for the work.

Running toward burning buildings for a living was the best job he ever had, he said. But it certainly wasn't easy.

"You have to have guts," Middleton said, his voice trembling from the effects of his stroke. "They were scared and I was scared."

Middleton remembers scouring a mobile home for residents only to find a man already burned to death on a couch.

Decades after working his last blaze, Middleton still turns his head when flames appear on his television or a movie screen. He saw enough of that in his own life, he said.

Middleton remains close with the men he worked beside all those years ago.

Several of his old coworkers visited him during a stint at the hospital following his stroke. And with the help of his wife, Middleton takes frequent calls to catch up with his buddies and relive old times.

When asked what helped the men put their differences aside after his hiring, Middleton referenced his sense of humor and his skill as a firehouse cook.

Gerald Mishoe, a former assistant chief with the North Charleston District Fire Department, said one of his earliest memories of Middleton in 1969 was of him cooking for the group.

"The black guys called it soul food and the white guys called it country cooking. Trust me, it was all the same thing. He made me think I was at my grandmama's house whenever he would cook," Mishoe said.

Mishoe took on his role as the department's assistant chief in 1976 when he was 26 years old. He said he often turned to the older Middleton for advice on managing his crew of workers.

The department's younger firefighters looked up to Middleton as a mentor. And his peers, even now, view him as a friend, Mishoe said.

"It may not mean a lot to you when you're 30, but when you're 65 all you've got are your memories. It's good to have memories of great men like Charlie Middleton. Thirty years later and I can still call them up and talk like it was yesterday. That's the measure of a life, and it only happens in a few professions. Firefighting is one of them," Mishoe said."

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