A difference maker: Henry L. Ashwood Sr.

‘Henry ‘Hank’ Ashwood Sr., the man I affectionately gave the moniker “Pappa Wood” for which he became known by the young men and women he recruited, was the unselfish, unrelenting force behind the movement to integrate the fire department and continue the recruitment and hiring of “minority” personnel for the City of St. Petersburg’s Public Safety agency,’ said Dr. Goliath Davis.

GOLIATH J. DAVIS, III, Ph.D., Contributor

ST. PETERSBURG — As we celebrate Black History month, teachers and others scramble to introduce their students to African-American men and women who have made significant contributions to the community and world order. However, the recognized individuals from the immediate community are seldom, typically national or world figures.

Consequently, our scholars are not readily aware they need only to look around them to find individuals they can emulate and respect. By now, most are familiar with the Courageous Twelve, and some ask, “what about the fire department?”

Eddie Utley with then-State Representative Wengay Newton at the recognition ceremony held at St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church on Oct. 21, 2017.

The five young Black pioneers: Captain Alphonso Brown, Lt. Preston Floyd, firefighters Stan Singletary, Eddie Utley, and the late Eugene Curry spearheaded the integration of the St. Petersburg Fire Department. They were recently profiled on a local news channel, and several years ago, Naomi Richardson, president of the Class of 1969, and others hosted a recognition ceremony for them at the St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church.

Their story continues to unfold; however, the individual behind the movement is seldom acknowledged or recognized.

Henry “Hank” Ashwood Sr., the man I affectionately gave the moniker “Pappa Wood” for which he became known by the young men and women he recruited, was the unselfish, unrelenting force behind the movement to integrate the fire department and continue the recruitment and hiring of “minority” personnel for the City of St. Petersburg’s Public Safety agency.

Retired firefighter Eddie Utley is known for saying, “You have to be tough to make it on this job,” acknowledging the racial insults, harsh treatment, and discrimination the fire trainees experienced in the firehouses and from the public. All five trainees were determined to persevere and knew they could count on Ashwood for support. They also knew Ashwood was subjected to equal or heightened pressure and discrimination for having the audacity to integrate the fire service.

Although African Americans were working in the police department, Pappa Wood worked to increase Black representation through the Public Safety Trainee program. Retired Officer Bernard Rawls, Officer Nathaniel Keith, Officer Cornell Pierce, and others were graduates of the program.

Courageous 12 Officer Freddie Lee Crawford coordinated my recruitment with Pappa Wood, and I joined the City of St. Petersburg in 1973 as a Public Safety Agent. The position required a dual certification – fire and police. The pioneers paved the way for me in the fire service; however, issues still existed.

Pappa Wood pushed for forming a Minority Recruiting Unit and selected Officer Bernard Rawls and me as recruiters. We opened a community-based office at 2330 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. St. S. “Soul Train” was the popular TV show in our community, and Pappa Wood adopted the show’s musical theme as our own.

He insisted on an advertising budget and ensured we appeared in The Weekly Challenger, on television, and on the radio. The “Soul Train” theme would begin to play, and one would hear: “Hi, I’m Hank Ashwood,” followed by an invitation to join the city’s Police and Fire Departments. He insisted we use every opportunity to recruit African-American men and women for any and all vacancies in the City of St. Petersburg.

Ashwood Sr. was born in Reddick, Fla., relocated to St. Petersburg, and married Rosena L. Varner. He completed a distinguished career in the United States Air Force, where he worked initially as a firefighter and retired as an education and training staff sergeant after 20 years of service.

He recruited Don McRae to develop the city’s first aviation unit, and the community-based minority recruiting unit increased the number of Black officers from 12 to 29. Additionally, the number of emergency complaint writers, dispatchers, and other city positions realized minority personnel increases.

The St. Petersburg Fire Department currently has an African-American Assistant Chief, Keith Watts, the second since the retirement of Assistant Chief James Wimberly. The Williams and Bynum names are well known in our community. The minority recruiting unit recruited retired firefighter Deacon Richard Williams and retired firefighter Dwight Bynum also served.

The city’s employment division continues to benefit from Pappa Wood’s trailblazing initiatives. Although he died on March 7, 2000, his spirit permeates the recruiting strategies passed on and continued under the Rev. Robert “Bob” Perry’s and Clarence Scott’s oversight of the city’s minority recruiting initiatives.

Many in the community know Pappa Wood’s children: Gayle Ashwood-Sims, Regina Ashwood-Baker, Rosena Ashwood-Harris, and Henry L. Ashwood, Jr. My wish is that all will know how an unassuming, humble man with a passion for his people, a commitment to equity, diversity and community development, the courage and ability to nurture and protect those he recruited; the capacity to serve and not pursue personal recognition and fame, made a difference. A difference we all still benefit from today.

Thank you, Pappa Wood.

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