For 150 years, the James Gordon Bennett Medal has been one of the highest honors in the New York City Fire Department.
Since 1869, the award has been given to firefighters who climb awnings to save families from burning buildings, or pull children from flames. Awarded annually for valor above and beyond the call of duty, it is akin to a Medal of Honor for the fire service.
But the medal was not named for a firefighter or a public servant. Mr. Bennett, who endowed the award in 1869 after firefighters saved his upstate home from a blaze, was the publisher of The New York Herald newspaper, where he pushed racist and segregationist views during the Civil War.
On Tuesday, the Fire Department announced it would strip Mr. Bennett’s name from the medal, citing his history of using racist language.
“Here we are as a department, giving a medal for the most outstanding act of bravery for the year, an award given to the bravest of the brave, and the name on the medal is someone who really stood for something else. Not bravery,” Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said.
The award will now be known as the Chief Peter J. Ganci medal, in honor of the highest-ranking uniformed member of the department to be killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001.
“I think we’ll go forward this way, and we’ll look down the list and see what other changes we need to make going forward,” Commissioner Nigro said. The department’s medals and awards, he said, should be named for its members, not benefactors.
“We have no shortage of heroes in the department to name them for,” he said.
The change comes amid a national reckoning, as institutions across the country wrestle with uncomfortable histories. Dozens of statues, memorials and figureheads have been stripped this summer — sometimes officially, sometimes by demonstrators protesting the brutality of the police against Black men and women.
At Princeton University, trustees stripped President Woodrow Wilson’s name from the college’s storied policy school because of Mr. Wilson’s “racist views and policies.” In Albany, city officials ordered the removal of the statue of Philip Schuyler, because he was a slave owner.
Even by standards of the 19th century, Mr. Bennett’s views were vitriolic. He leveraged The Herald, a Northern newspaper, to undermine Union troops and President Abraham Lincoln. Under Mr. Bennett’s tenure, The Herald frequently used racial slurs and advocated the secession of the South.
“The United States is in the midst of a Civil War. And James Gordon Bennett, to discredit the Civil War effort to unify the nation, employs racist rhetoric,” said Alan J. Singer, a professor at Hofstra University who has studied Mr. Bennett’s history. “That is unacceptable at that time and any time.”
Mr. Bennett’s memorial statue still stands in Manhattan’s Herald Square, and his name continues to circulate in the news industry, including through a well-known journalism scholarship.
Mr. Bennett’s racist past has been noted for years by the Vulcan Society, which represents the department’s Black firefighters.
“Every firefighter learns of the James Gordon Bennett medal since they’re probationary firefighters,” said Khalid Baylor, a retired firefighter and president of the Vulcan Society. “No one tells you about the background of James Gordon Bennett, and how he was a racist.”
“We are happy to hear that the name is to be changed,” Mr. Baylor said.
James Tempro, an elder member of the Vulcan Society and the first Black firefighter to be awarded the medal, first raised the issue publicly in 2017, and said he was debating returning the award because of its name.
The change is particularly notable in the Fire Department, which has for decades been accused of racial bias within its ranks. In 2007, it was sued by the Justice Department for racially discriminatory hiring processes. The department settled that suit in 2014 and has since been subject to a federal court monitor, ensuring more diversity within its ranks.
In 2017, several civilian and Emergency Medical Services workers at the department filed a lawsuit alleging racial bias. That suit is ongoing.
The change to the James Gordon Bennett medal, Commissioner Nigro said, is “important for us because of the history that we have, and the changes that we have been making in this administration.”
Less than a decade ago, the Fire Department’s ranks were more than 90 percent white. Now, roughly 25 percent of the 8,000-strong force is Black or Hispanic, according to department figures.