CANTON, Ohio (WJW) — The city of Canton made history on Monday when the first African American Fire Chief was officially sworn into office.
A former combat medic with the Army National Guard Akbar Bennett joined the department in 1993.
“When I first got on the fire department I didn’t know what it was going to entail,” said Bennett, explaining that he quickly fell in love with the job.
He served there with his two brothers becoming the first family to have done so.
Later taking the exam to become a captain, he failed to get the promotion.
“My first promotional exam I didn’t make it but I didn’t get discouraged because at that time I said to myself, ‘I got two choices, I could get bitter or I could get better,’ so I decided to get better.”
Bennett says he worked harder than ever eventually becoming battalion chief and then division chief in 2015.
“I was not appointed, there was nothing given to me. I earned everything,” said Bennett, adding, “That’s the message I want to send out to all the young kids in the future coming from where I come from, the projects. Coming from poverty, don’t expect anybody to give you anything. Go out and earn it.”
Bennett says he understands the significance of his promotion.
He explained the department did not have African American firefighters before 1981, when the city agreed to do so as part of a consent decree.
He says when he first worked in the department there were no African American captains.
“I was the first black battalion chief, I was the first black assistant chief and so I happen to be the first black chief also,” Bennett told Fox 8 News on Friday.
“There’s a lot of firsts, don’t get me wrong, but the key is not to be the last and by that, I mean the key is to do a great job and so it’s not even an issue anymore,” he added.
Bennett says he already has a very good working relationship with the administration at the city, but he plans to work hard to be efficient.
He looks forward to emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic which has put a strain on local EMS services across the country and believes his department will be better than it ever has as a result of the added technology and training capabilities.
“People say I’m always in a good mood and I’m always positive because I always look at life as lemonade, when life gives you lemons you make lemonade and I will honestly tell you that our fire department is even better now after COVID,” said Bennett.
Though he has served as the interim fire chief for months, Bennett says he has yet to sit at the chief’s desk and will not do so until after he is officially sworn in.
After that he says the department will continue to operate as one.
“Based on the common goal of protecting the citizens of Canton and making sure that we have each other’s six you don’t have time to worry about what religion somebody is or what gender somebody is or what color somebody is, it’s the mission. It’s all about the mission.”
In a Facebook post, the department says Division Chief Akbar Bennet will be the first African American fire chief in the city’s 200 year history.
Battalion Chief Steven Henderson will also be promoted to Canton Fire’s division chief, according to the post.