In 1968, Charles Hood was 7 years old, riding in the passenger seat of his uncle’s brand new car. The silver Cadillac Coupe DeVille was climbing a hill in Culver City, California, near Los Angeles when police pulled them over.

“My uncle automatically just … he was mad,” Hood said Tuesday, recounting the event. “He told me, put your hands in your lap. Look forward. Don’t say a word.”

“I’m thinking, why is he coaching me?” he remembered. “I’d never been with anybody who was pulled over in my life.”

The officers split up to approach each side of the vehicle. Hood’s uncle, Charles Drinkard Sr., carefully reached toward the glove box to grab his vehicle registration. The officer standing next to the young boy had his hand ready on his holstered gun.

“They started questioning [him] about his car,” Hood said. “It was his car. But it was new and he was black.”

Hood, who has led the San Antonio Fire Department since 2007, made a detour from an acceptance speech after being named the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association’s Chief of the Year, an award given by the Metro members of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and National Fire Protection Association, and the SAFD emergency medical services’ receiving the Excellence in Fire Service-Based EMS Award from the Congressional Fire Services Institute. While answering reporters’ questions related to the current social unrest, he used the platform to talk about his past experiences with racism both in personal and professional settings, and his role today as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to play out on San Antonio’s streets.

Hood said he was “incensed” by the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed while in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. Black Lives Matter protests have taken place daily in San Antonio since May 30.

“If I can’t speak up now, I don’t deserve any awards,” Hood said. “I don’t deserve to be fire chief if I can’t speak up for injustices.”

“It’s not a burden, I do feel the responsibility as a black man in a position of authority in this city,” added Hood, who was the first black chief for SAFD and the first non-San Antonian to get the job since 1891. “So if I don’t speak out and say something, then none of this matters. I’m going to be black longer than I’m going to be the fire chief in San Antonio.” 

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Even today, Hood worries about being pulled over by the police. In San Antonio, he’s recognizable, especially to police officers, but in other Texas cities, he might have to follow the same advice his uncle gave him 50 years ago.

Put your hands in your lap. Look forward. Don’t say a word.

“There is something that needs to be fixed,” Hood said. “As long as I’m here and I have a voice, I feel obligated to say something. Black lives are precious. These young men are precious.”

Hood pointed to two of his four sons, Sheridan, 17, and Langston, 19, who are in town for a few weeks visiting their father between high school and college courses and have joined Hood at BLM marches and protests.

“It’s a powerful thing, it’s something that I enjoyed doing, but it’s sad to me,” said Sheridan, who attends high school in Denver. “My dad was born in the 50s. It is 2020. People are legitimately marching for something they were marching for in the 50s and the 60s. … If I’m in a Black Lives Matter protest with my kids in 30 or 40 years down the line, I’m going to be really upset.”

He acknowledged that progress has been made, but social and institutional racism persists.

“When is there going to be [enough] change so we don’t have to riot, we don’t have to loot, we just want to be heard,” Sheridan said. “I feel like so many people want to be heard. When you take that away from someone for so long, you can’t be mad at them when they’re throwing bricks – you really can’t because how long have they been trying to yell so loud?”

San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood’s sons Langston Hood, 19, (left) and Sheridan Hood, 17, watch as their father receives his award. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“I have suffered and experienced racism throughout my career,” Hood said, remembering a medical call he responded to as a young firefighter and paramedic in the 1980s.

“Son, I’m a Georgia peach,” a white man in need of medical attention told Hood. “Where I come from, blacks don’t do medicine.”

His captain, an old white man, responded: “If he’s not good enough to work on you, and [Hood is] one of the best we have, then we’re not good enough either.”

Forty years later, discrimination hasn’t disappeared on the streets or even in the department. On June 11, SAFD fired a 10-year veteran firefighter who “posted a racially derogatory comment/image on social media as well as an incendiary and threatening comment regarding recent protests,” according to a City press release.

“You have got to understand that we have no tolerance for hatred in this organization,” Hood said Tuesday. “You can’t have hate [and] provide the kind of service that each and every one of you deserves.”

“… We have to make sure that our fire stations are nurturing environments. We have a department that is diverse. We have members that are diverse. We respond to a diverse community and it’s my belief that that community ought to be mirrored in the fire stations and the people that ride out in those trucks and ambulances.”

San Antonio is 64 percent Hispanic or Latino, 25 percent white, 7 percent black, and 3 percent Asian, with the remainder made up of other racial groups, according to 2010 census results. Only 4 percent of SAFD’s 1,744 uniformed employees are black and 42 percent identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the department. Five percent of uniformed employees are female.

Ensuring that uniformed employees reflect the community is one step towards institutionally recognizing decades of racism in the U.S., he said.

“There [are] generations of people that have seen horrific things – some of you could never imagine,” Hood said, noting one of his grandfather’s best friends was lynched. “All we’re asking you do to is look through my lens for a minute.

“We’ve come to a reckoning in this country.”

Hood said when he was hired in 2007, some people thought it was because he is black, but he was determined to prove otherwise.

“I got it because I was the best candidate. I got it because I have a stellar résumé and I had a great career,” Hood said, but the job came with broader implications.

“If I’m not successful as an African American man, what is that going to do to any other [African American] chief that’s trying to get a job in this country if I come here and flame out and I don’t do my job [well],” he said.

When black leaders make mistakes, they’re seen as representatives of the entire black community and don’t always get the second chances that are given to their white counterparts, he said.

Among the numerous awards and recognitions – including those celebrated Tuesday – also lies a newfound focus on best practices of the department under Hood’s leadership.

“When we arrived here in 2007 we were running out of ambulances every day. We carried nine medications,” Hood said. They now carry 45 different medications to treat patients on the spot.

“We’re bringing an [intensive care unit] to your front door or to an intersection.”

The department pioneered the Mobile Integrated Healthcare unit that seeks out patients before they need to call for an ambulance – before and during the coronavirus pandemic – and was the first in Texas to offer whole blood to save “countless” lives and blood supply, he noted.

“Our fire department, I think we can all agree, has been the envy of the nation in our COVID-19 response,” Nirenberg said. “So I can’t say that I’m surprised that now they are award-winning. Some might say it’s about time, honestly.”

City Manager Erik Walsh, who was a member of the City’s administrative team who interviewed Hood for the job 13 years ago, also praised him.

“I’ve learned a lot about leadership and more importantly being a father,” Walsh said. “Charles has been a great role model not only to his boys but to me and he’s done a great job for this department.”

Sheridan and Langston were 4 and 6 years old when their father moved to San Antonio.

It challenged Hood to grow as a leader and show his sons what’s possible, Langston said. “I’m glad he did it.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...