LaShonn Tomlinson always had dreams of becoming a Chicago firefighter, but while working at Amtrak’s Union Station storage yard, those dreams often passed him by.
“For years, I would see the new candidates running down Canal Street, and I’d be wondering when it would be my turn,” said Tomlinson, 38. “But I never got the call.”
The call finally came Tuesday morning for Tomlinson and other hopefuls who, nearly two decades after suing the city for bias, have another shot at becoming firefighters.
About 6,000 African-Americans in 1995 filed a class-action lawsuit that alleged racial bias in the city’s firefighter testing process. Test-takers were divided into qualified and highly qualified candidates, based on their scores, but the African-American applicants argued that the city’s cutoff score was arbitrarily set, leaving out thousands of qualified black applicants. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the city was ordered to give those applicants the opportunity to take the test again.
For Tomlinson, just the first round of testing gave him hope for a long-awaited opportunity.
“An opportunity to make a decent salary,” he said, “in times where everything is going up but your pay.”
Close to 1,000 applicants from the class of 1995 were chosen at random for testing at the Quinn Fire Academy, said department spokesperson Larry Langford. Of those, 111 will be chosen to go through six months of emergency medical services and fire suppression training, and those who pass will be hired by the department, as ordered by a lower court.
Members of the class who are not hired are eligible for a share of $30 million in monetary relief, said Josh Civin, an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund who helped argue the case on behalf of the applicants.
“I think that for us and for our clients, this is an important day,” Civin said of Tuesday’s first round of testing. “Because we are closer to justice for our clients who experienced discrimination at the hands of the city.”