How Denver’s First African American Fire Chief Contended With Racism
"Our society has not been fair to people of color and it’s time to fess up to that,” said Roderick "Rod" Juniel, Denver’s first Black Fire Chief. A Denver native and graduate of Manual High School, the 29-year veteran of the Denver Fire Department was sworn in as chief in 2001 by then-Mayor Wellington Webb.
We interviewed Juniel as discussions about systemic racism were increasing following the George Floyd protests of July 2020 in Denver. For him, it was as if history was repeating itself. The chief had no reservations while sharing the countless acts of racism he faced as he went up the ranks in the fire department. Among the most appalling is having to reassure a woman how him and the other Black men who had responded to her call for help were real firefighters.
"She was so afraid of having Black firefighters in her house, and we had a $500,000 fire truck outside, she called us, we had uniforms on... and she was still afraid that we had probably stole this truck and came in to harm her husband," Juniel remembered.
The chief also shared what it was like to work towards equal treatment and gaining equal access to top-level positions. He discussed what still needs to be done to achieve diversity within the fire department going forward, to continue to grow and include people of color but also to be sure to include women and the LGBTQ+ community.
His is a story of perseverance, but also of hope.