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Book honors SA officer’s dad

On July 6, 1944, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus opened its “Big Top” to the residents of Hartford, Conn. Approximately 7,000 people attended that day, including a little kid named John Stewart.

Suddenly, a fire ignited. It took only minutes for the huge tent—which had been waterproofed with a coating of paraffin wax and gasoline—to burn. The toxic blaze and smoke trapped hundreds of people, killing 167 and severely injuring 487 more. “I didn’t know what to do,” said Stewart, “I just ran home!” That incident was the defining moment for Hartford and for Stewart who, when he became 19, aspired to be a fireman.

After years of racial struggle, he became the city’s 7th black fireman and later overcame relentless opposition to ascend the ranks and become the first African–American fire chief in New England’s history.

“If it were not for Chief Stewart, I wouldn’t be standing here today as a retired firefighter,” said Steve Harris, a retired captain of the Hartford, Conn., Fire Department. “He took me under his wing as he did most young blacks because he recruited most of us. Chief Stewart not only taught us how to be great firefighters, he also taught us how to be good men, to go back to our respective communities, and to be leaders.”

These words were echoed by people who attended a recent book launch for Hard Climb Up The Ladder (, the life story of Chief John B. Stewart Jr., who is the father of Major John B. Stewart III, corps officer at the Syracuse (Citadel), N.Y., Corps.

The 420–page softcover book, which includes the founding of The International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters, is also co–authored by Ruben Tendai and offers an in–depth analysis of the history of Connecticut as well as of Hartford.

“One thing that I’ve learned,” said Stewart, “I made it because of many families, neighbors, friends, and—the good Lord!”

by Warren L. Maye

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