When nearly 100 new Chicago firefighters crossed the stage Thursday to shake Mayor Rahm Emanuel's hand during their graduation, most of them did so after waiting -- and fighting -- for almost two decades to join the Chicago Fire Department.
About 6,000 African Americans were passed over because of the city's discriminatory handling of a firefighters' entrance exam in 1995. After years of lawsuits, a federal appeals court ordered the city last year to hire those who passed that exam -- and they included 86 of Thursday's 98 graduating firefighters, including at least two in their 50s.
The graduates also included Jerry Jones III, 40, who was working as a cement finisher when the legal fight finally ended. His father is a retired assistant commissioner.
"It was challenging at times, but everything happens for a reason. I just took it to mean this is my time and that time was probably not the best time for me to come on the job," Jones told the Chicago Sun-Times.
The 1995 test was intended to measure an aptitude for firefighting. Anyone who scored 64 or below was deemed not qualified. But officials told those who scored above that number that even though they passed, the department would only randomly hire the top 1,800 who scored 89 or better.
Because only 11 percent of the African Americans scored 89 or better, the overwhelming number of applicants hired from that test were white.
The attorney for the black firefighters, Joshua Karsh, said the test was discriminatory because there was no evidence that applicants who scored 89 or above would be better firefighters than those who scored 64.
A federal judge ruled in 2005 that the test discriminated against black candidates. The said the city knew the cutoff point was meaningless and would disproportionately exclude blacks from the pool of candidates who were most likely to be hired.
Attorneys had argued that had the city selected firefighters at random from all the people who passed the exam, the result would have been a pool of equally capable firefighters but more integrated.
The class-action lawsuit eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that it wasn't too late for the claims to be made. A federal appeals court then ruled that the Chicago Fire Department needed not only to hire 111 black firefighters, but also provide back pay to those who don't get hired.
City officials announced earlier this month that they will borrow about $80 million dollars to settle the case.
"When you deal with something painful from the past, justice is served by being upfront about it," Emanuel said during Thursday's ceremony. "We are a stronger city for having dealt with it."
Those who became firefighters Thursday had to pass a physical exam, drug test and background check before entering the academy.
"It was very, very hard, mainly because I hadn't been to school in so long and I went from being in authority to having (to answer to authority) like I was when I was 18 years old," 43-year-old Sherman Taylor, who worked as a civilian lock-up employee at the Chicago Police Department, told the Sun-Times.
"It wasn't easy. Body don't heal as fast. But, I feel like it was my calling. All we wanted was a chance -- and we got it. Seventeen years later, but we did it."