The Boston City Council honored Karen Miller, a pioneering African-American firefighter and resident of Dorchester during their council meeting last Wednesday. Miller was Boston’s first African-American female firefighter.
“We wanted to thank [Miller] for her commitment to diversity,” said City Councillor Ayanna Pressley in an interview. Pressley, along with City Councillor Mark Ciommo, was behind Miller’s recognition.
“Just by her sheer example she inspires people, especially African-American girls,” Pressley added.
Miller was born in Roxbury and later moved to the Academy Homes apartment complex. After a six-year tour of duty with the U.S. Army reserves, she joined the Boston Fire Department in August 1985, the first African-American woman to do so in Boston’s history.
“My brother was a state trooper,” said Miller. “He encouraged me to take the civil service exams, so I took all of them. Then, he suggested that I take the first job that came up, which was the Fire Department.”
Miller’s first position was on the ladder company at Ladder 10, the station in Jamaica Plain, which was a milestone in itself. Previously, the few female firefighters had all been placed on engine duty, exclusively.
Life at the station was often volatile, according to Miller. She, along with any other women in the department, faced a culture which was reluctant to accommodate them. When Miller started her career, women did not have designated bathrooms. All their gear was unisex and women often found it difficult to maneuver with the oversized equipment.
“I was considered the whiner, the troublemaker and complainer,” she said. “When I first came on, I didn’t say anything. I tried not to make waves because I was alone and didn’t know what I could do…When the other women came on, and we all started talking, we realized that it was time to do something.”
Miller met with her female colleagues in the department to organize for reforms, earning her a negative reputation and ostracism with some of her co-workers. Miller, along with several other female firefighters, was able to negotiate for several changes in the Fire Department’s employee policies, including locked bathrooms for men and women, smaller sized protective equipment for women and the refitting of shower areas to maximize privacy in most stations.
After 10 years at Ladder 10, Miller took up positions as a fire investigator, educator and fire prevention specialist. She spent her final years with the department at Ladder 48, in Hyde Park, one of the predominantly minority-staffed firehouses in the city.
Miller says that her time at Ladder 48 was a huge improvement over her beginning at Ladder 10. She retired from the Fire Department in 2006. **Since her retirement, Miller has been involved with the Boston Society of Vulcans, a non-profit organization that works to recruit minorities into public safety positions, where she now serves as executive director.
“I felt that because I was the first, and because of what I went through, I felt that recruiting other women should be a part of my job…to show our little sisters that this is a job that they can do.” said Miller.