The Life and Career of Commissioner Lowery

The Life and Career of Commissioner Lowery, the New York City Fire Department’s First Black Fire Commissioner

Robert O. Lowery, a trailblazer and pioneer, left an indelible mark on the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) as its first Black Fire Commissioner. His remarkable journey, which began in 1941 when he joined the FDNY, paved the way for diversity and inclusion within the department’s ranks.

Shattering Racial Barriers

“Commissioner Lowery was a pioneer for our Department. He identified problems back then that we still face today…”

Appointed by Mayor John V. Lindsay on January 1, 1966, Lowery’s historic role as the FDNY’s first Black Fire Commissioner shattered long-standing racial barriers. His appointment was monumental, as former Mayor David N. Dinkins stated, “He opened doors for all of us.”

Lowery’s tenure, spanning eight years until his resignation in September 1973, was marked by unprecedented challenges. During this period, known as “The War Years,” New York City faced an epidemic of fires, exacerbated by arson and racial tensions.

Courageous Leadership Amidst Adversity

Despite the hostile environment and rumors circulating against him, Lowery remained steadfast in his commitment to improving race relations within the FDNY. He actively worked to increase the proportion of Black firefighters, assign more Black firefighters to minority neighborhoods, and promote Black firefighters to leadership roles.

Moreover, Lowery addressed the issue of attacks on firefighters by residents who perceived their presence as an intrusion in minority neighborhoods. He advocated for better cooperation and warned of diminished fire service if such incidents persisted.

A Trailblazer’s Journey

Lowery’s journey to becoming a trailblazer began in Buffalo, where he was born on April 20, 1916. After moving to Harlem at age 9, he initially aspired to become a lawyer but economic hardship led him to take a job as an usher at the Alhambra Theater.

His path to the FDNY was almost accidental, as he stated, “Had the police department called first, I am sure I would have become a cop.” Nonetheless, Lowery embraced his role as a firefighter and quickly became a protégé of Wesley Williams, one of the first Black fire chiefs.

Honoring a Legacy

In recognition of Lowery’s groundbreaking contributions, the FDNY recently premiered a documentary film titled “The First: Fire Commissioner Robert O. Lowery’s Story” at the New York City Fire Museum. The film, featuring interviews with the Lowery family, Mayor Eric Adams, FDNY officials, and the Vulcan Society, celebrates the life and career of this pioneering figure.

Fire Commissioner Laura Kavanagh, speaking at the premiere, emphasized Lowery’s forward-thinking approach and the lasting impact of his solutions on issues ranging from fire investigation to operations and technology.

Through this film and continued recognition, the FDNY honors the legacy of Commissioner Lowery, whose courageous leadership and unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusion continue to inspire generations of firefighters and public servants.