NYC Fire Department’s highest award named after racist gets renamed to honor 9/11 hero

The New York City Fire Department announced it is renaming its award for valor due to the “deeply racist beliefs” of the man it was originally named after.

FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro announced on social media that the annual award will now bear the name of Chief Peter J. Ganci Jr., the department’s highest-ranking member to lose his life on September 11, 2001. The medal, first awarded in 1869, was initially named after James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, to honor firefighters who saved his home.

“However, Bennett also held deeply racist beliefs and used his newspaper to repeatedly express hateful views in full support of slavery,” Nigro said. “These views have no place in any society, and I believe we must cease including this individual’s name, and therefore his legacy, in our annual celebration.”

James Tempro, the first Black firefighter to be awarded the medal, urged the department to change the name in 2017. He told the New York Daily News he was debating returning the award, which he received in 1969, because of its name.

The change comes amid a national reckoning on racism, as institutions and businesses change or reconsider their controversial branding tied to racist historical figures or tropes.

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Nigro said the change is not meant to “erase history” but rather “create a better present and future” for the department. While Bennett never worked as a firefighter, Ganci held every uniformed rank and received numerous citations for bravery during his 33-year-long career, according to the statement. 

“This award for bravery should not be tied to someone who never served the FDNY, risked his life to save others, and who advocated for hate and slavery,” Nigro said. “That award should be named for the Chief who was leading our troops on our darkest day, a great man who gave his life overseeing the greatest rescue operation in FDNY history.” 

More than 150 members of the fire department have been awarded the medal during a ceremony traditionally held the first Wednesday in June. This year’s ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and a socially-distant celebration will take place later this year, according to the post.

Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg

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