In 1956, six men became a part of the Tulsa Fire Department. These men were Clifford Harn, Merle Stripling, Robert L. Shanks, Milton T. Goodwin, Henry L. Collier, and Cleatus Q. Stephens.
They quite literally changed the “face” of the TFD as they fought fires, and racial injustice at the same time.
The men were the first black firefighters of Tulsa, and they became known as “The Six.”
Cleatus Q. Stephens fathered a set of twins, Ronald and Donald, who became firefighters, following in their father’s footsteps. The two men served the City of Tulsa for a total 31 years.
They say it was their father, Cleatus Q. Stephens, and the rest of The Six, who inspired them.
“My dad and the firemen, those were my heroes,” said Donald Stephens. “All six of those guys paved the way.”
“Three people on the department that are firemen told me the reason they became a fireman was because of my dad,” said Ronald Stephens.
At a time when there were so many places in the community that said “no” to them, they were in awe seeing firemen that reflected what they saw in the mirror.
“I remember when I was growing up, there were certain restaurants and places we couldn’t go to,” said Donald Stephens. “But my Dad was doing a job that you didn’t see black men be able to do.”
The Stephens brothers say The Six had to go through much more than fighting fires.
“They fought fires together, but when they came back to the station, white guys would go on their side and they would go on their side,” said Ronald Stephens. “The firetruck was parked in the middle to separate the station, and they didn’t have the nice quarters like they did on the other side. They just just had one big room with lockers in it, and a bathroom.”
“It was segregated, the station was,” said Donald Stephens. “They would fight [fires] but when they went back to civilian life, it was like you didn’t exist to them.”
There was also a time when tensions made The Six worry for their lives.
“He told me, ‘You know what, I had to sleep in this room, and I slept with my gun up under my bed to make sure no one bothered me at the fire station’,” said Ronald Stephens. “Now was that bad or what?”
Despite that harsh reality, The Six pushed on. The Stephens bothers say they never saw their father miss a day of work.
“It was what he wanted to do, so he wasn’t going to let anyone deter him from that,” said Ronald Stephens.
That spirit was evident in the Stephens brothers when they joined the department in 1977. The departments were no longer segregated, but treatment was still far from equal among white and black firefighters.
“At the time when I joined up, I believed everybody should be fair and treated equal, although I found out it wasn’t like that,” said Ronald Stephens. “But I told myself I’m not going to quit, if anything, I’m going to stay and make a change. The only way I could make a change was to stay. Quitting and leaving..that wasn’t going to make change.”
The Stephens brothers say for themselves, and their father, there were people who helped them make positive strides forward for equality while they worked for the department .
“The worst thing I ever did was try to help a guy who got stabbed but he didn’t want me touching him,” said Ronald Stephens. “But then my Chief at the time said, ‘He knows the most about first aid and if you deny him, you deny all of us,’ [my Chief] was a good man, and there were a few men on the department that we’re like that.”
“There’s negative people in all races and all colors, but there are always some good people also, too,” said Donald Stephens. “With the changes that happened in the Department, I’ll say the last 10 years were my best on the department, and there were, and are, a lot of great guys.”
While the spirit of The Six runs through the Tulsa Fire Department now, the Stephens brothers say there are still ways to make sure the community continues to move forward towards equality.
“We’ve come a long way after the civil rights era but there’s still some work to do,” said Donald Stephens.
“It takes people that are different colors to speak up when something is not right,” said Ronald Stephens. “That's what we need more of because that's what helped changed things for us, and what will help keep changing things for other people.”
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