Lifelong Greenport resident Thomas Watkins is a fixture at the and Rescue Squad, but many do not realize he was not only the North Fork's first black fire chief but one of the very few black chiefs on Long Island.
Watkins, 61, joined the Greenport Fire Department in December 1983. Despite Greenport's diversity, at the time, he was the department's only black member. He said he had heard there had been one other African-American member before him but when he joined he was the only member. At the time, he said, no one made a public big deal the department accepting a black member, but he had heard that a father and son quit the department when they learned he got in.
In fact, he said some members of the black community had a hard time with his joining the fire department.
"They said I was black on the outside and white on the inside," he said.
Watkins said that it was easy for him to become involved with the fire department because Greenport was such a tight-knit community and his family was well-known. Everyone knew his father was a mailman and his mother was involved with catering and the PTA.
Watkins said his parents were a very strict, church-going family when he was growing up and he was expected home right after school. In the 1950s and 1960s he said he had heard of Ku Klux Klan activity on the North Fork but only "ran into it once in Mattituck." He recalls that people never disrespected him at all and he, personally, did not have problems with people because of his race.
After graduating from high school, he joined the Navy to see the world. He spent two years in Florida and then returned to Greenport where he raised his three sons.
After he joined the fire department, he was instrumental in encouraging other African-Americans to join the department. He began his six-year stint in the role of chief as second assistant in 1999. Shortly after, he was featured in a New York Times article as being one of the handful of black chiefs on Long Island. In 2005 News Channel 12 also interviewed Watkins.
Today, Watkins is the Captain of the Greenport Fire Department Rescue Squad and takes his role seriously. He takes time to attend leadership conferences and teach CPR and first aid. When he is not busy volunteering, he works for Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and works at as a nurse from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. five days a week. Even with his busy work schedule, he makes time to volunteer.
“If you’re going to do something, be committed. Realize not everything is going to be a bed of roses,” Watkins said.
There are only a few black members in his department today, but he thinks the time committment required to become a member is too great for many young people. He said other African-Americans have been accepted into the department or rescue squad only to leave before they finish all the requirements.
Although he said he does not consider himself a leader, he recognizes that others may. He says he enjoys what he's doing and he knows what he is doing. After 29 years with the department, he says he is not going anywhere any time soon.