Ellen Pauletta Peoples, Buffalo’s First Black Female Fire Fighter Retires After 26 Years of Service
by Nanette D. Massey cover photo: leah hamilton
It was 1991 and a 5'4", 120 pound Ellen Peoples showed up for day one of her training as Buffalo's first Black female fire fighter. Her presence was a surprise to everyone, even her own parents. She hadn't told anyone in her family she was studying for the exam. Most surprised was her father, Conde Peoples, who was already one of the very few Black fire fighters in the city himself. His reservations subsided as he reminisced over his daughter's roughand- tumble upbringing. This would be the same fearless, sensible, brave woman charging into buildings, he thought to himself, and he had little to worry about.
Ellen grew up with brothers older than her. Having someone to play with meant keeping up with the boys, and she did so with gusto. She described herself as a real ashykneed, fence climbing, dirt under her fingernails tomboy. She was a fearless adventurer. Ellen went to Burgard Vocational High School, where she was one of only two girls in the entire school, and studied aviation mechanics. As a result, she was no stranger to being in an almost all male environment. After finishing at Buffalo State College, She knocked around town as a substitute teacher, waited tables, taught aerobics classes, and even did a four-year stint as a member of the Buffalo Jills cheerleading squad. In fact, it was her ambition to make it as a Cowboys cheerleader that moved her to Dallas, Texas. After a few years, it was her attachment to family that brought her back. It was the early 90's, yet Buffalo was still light years away from a sensibility that could even imagine a Black mayor. On top of being the first Black female, Ellen was only the 10th woman hired as a fire fighter. She knew there would be opposition wherever she went and vowed to be a professional no matter what, believing professionalism would trump all things in the end. Ellen explained that women in this profession had to make a decision early on about just being "one of the boys" or setting immediate boundaries. The fire houses were no strangers to off-color remarks, bawdy conversations, even pornography. One of her fire houses even had a tacit agreement with the neighborhood "working girls" that the house was eventually cited for.
"There is a fine line for women," she said, "and it's tough to draw." The same man she might have had to call to account for his behavior might be the same man she would need to count on later for a life-saving decision or a leg-up to her next position. Ellen’s mother encouraged her to start from the beginning demanding the respect she deserved as a woman co-worker. Ellen battled for a long time for lavatories for women. Of the nineteen houses open when she started, only six had anything resembling separated showering accommodations and commodes for women. A bathroom might seem like a small thing. For Ellen and other women it posed limitations such as choices for where they wanted to be stationed, overtime hours available to them, opportunities for advancement, not to mention just plain having a work environment where a woman can feel safe. Ellen took her concerns to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision on more than one occasion. Other women were afraid to join their names to the action, and each time nothing moved forward.
Out in the field, Ellen's fierceness was never in question. She drew a fire call on her first night on the job. She remembered it was the night before Thanksgiving. Sent up to the top floor of a burning structure, she charged in ahead of her supervising officer. She knew she was being tested for hesitation or panic, and she jumped right in. They slapped her on the back and broke out the good beer to acknowledge her when they got back to the station. She exemplifies the benefit of diverse backgrounds among emergency response personnel by recalling that there were many instances where she was the only Black person on the scene.
Once they were summoned to a home where a young boy called because he smelled smoke. As soon as she and her White partner entered the house, Ellen recognized the smell of a hot comb against dry hair. The woman doing her hair was shocked the boy called 911 and began yelling at him out of panic. Ellen's partner wanted to call the police on the woman for her spirited outburst towards the boy, and the whole situation could have gone irretrievably sideways if it weren't for Ellen's own life long experiences in Black women's beauty salons. She was able to calm everyone involved down, and they left the home without a hot comb becoming the lead story on the six o'clock news.
Ellen would love to keep going, but a shoulder injury has put her on the sidelines. What she will miss most about the job is the active, hands-on involvement with her community. She usually lived in the same neighborhood as the station she worked in and was likely to personally know the people at the calls they were responding to. Ellen loved the visibility, the respect the uniform afforded, and the opportunity to use her visibility as an inspiration, encouraging everyone she engaged with to know that they too could make a difference in their respective communities.
The city sends Ellen Peoples off with a retirement party Thursday night at 6 p.m. at the Landmark On Pearl event facility at 318 Pearl Street in downtown Buffalo. Tickets are $45 and can be acquired at https://www.eventbrite. com/e/ellen-peoples-retirement-