The City of Raleigh hired its first Black firefighter in 1963. He served for three years before resigning. The second Black firefighter, Welton Jones, rose through the ranks to lieutenant before his retirement in 1988. 

Kevin Coppage was only the third African American ever promoted to the rank of division chief in Raleigh. Last week, he resigned. A lawsuit he filed against the city in 2020 alleging he’d been denied promotions due to his race should be settled this week. 

Raleigh has long lagged behind in hiring minorities in the fire department. As of 2019, just 15 percent of the firefighters in Raleigh were Black despite the fact that the city is 30 percent African American.

The lack of diversity was nothing new. In 2007, Jones spoke before the city council, concerned about the continued lag in hiring Black recruits.

“They kept hiring whites,” Jones said, according to a WRAL article at the time. “Then, when I would complain about it, they would stick a Black in every now and then.”

The department hired Coppage in 1994. He had returned from the Marine Corps, where he served in the Gulf War. Steadily, he rose up the ranks. In 2009 he was named “Firefighter of the Year,” by American Legion Post 1. Coppage was promoted to captain, and then division chief, to become only the third African American promoted to that level. 

But for every promotion Coppage received, there were many for which he felt he was overlooked in favor of less-qualified white candidates, according to the lawsuit. In 2012, Coppage applied to be a training academy coordinator, but the job went to Brad Harvey, a firefighter Coppage had actually personally trained. Coppage was denied another promotion that year, and again in 2015 and 2017, jobs he claims went to less-experienced white coworkers before he was promoted to the rank of division chief in 2017. 

Despite his decorated career, Coppage suffered PTSD from his Marine Corps service which led him to drink. On March 4, 2019, Coppage was charged with driving under the influence. He alerted his superiors, who at first seemed supportive. But the support quickly soured, Coppage says.

“I was embarrassed. I was at the lowest point of my life,” Coppage told the INDY. “It seemed like every day I went to work I was in one of the chief’s offices, either the chief or my boss. I really felt that the microscope had honed in.”

Less than three weeks later, the department published a slate of new policies, including a new rule to deny promotion to employees who had been charged and convicted of DUIs. While the other policies published were dated effective March 21, the DUI policy had been backdated to March 1.

“[The department] backdated it specifically to target me,” Coppage says. 

Coppage applied to be an assistant chief later that year, but was denied due to his DUI conviction. The white man who was hired “had less relevant educational experience, fewer relevant credentials, and less professional experience,” than Coppage. A month later, Coppage applied to be division chief of service and lost out on the job again to a less-qualified white candidate, the lawsuit says. 

In December of 2019, Coppage filed two grievances with the city, claiming racial discrimination as the reason he lost out on promotions and alleging that the backdated DUI policy constituted harassment and discrimination. 

Four months later, in March of last year, Coppage filed the lawsuit claiming racial discrimination had created a hostile work environment in violation of the Civil Rights Act. Coppage has been on leave from the department ever since on “administrative duty.” 

The city declined to comment on the lawsuit when reached by the INDY last week. 

Coppage’s story, while troubling, is not unique. Nationwide, fire departments lag in hiring non-white candidates, the subject of numerous op-eds. In 2018, International Association of Black Professional Firefighters president Addington Stewart penned an op-ed for The New York Times confronting systemic bigotry within the industry. 

“I’ve served 35 years as a firefighter, and the racism today is as bad as I can remember,” Stewart wrote.

Just last year, North White Plains fire chief Andrew Seicol penned his own editorial, opposing negative reactions to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We must acknowledge the presence of systemic racism and the numerous forms it takes in society and, more specifically, the fire service,” Seicol wrote. “We must admit that it exists in our house.”

Raleigh is not ready to clean house, it seems, but rather hoped to settle the lawsuit quietly. 

Since filing the complaint, Coppage received a series of threatening and harassing text messages from anonymous numbers that the INDY viewed.

In February, a year after filing his lawsuit, Coppage got a text warning, “if you try to come back, I got about 5 complaints that will hit HR’s desk that first day. Would strongly advise against it.” 

In April, he received another, with a link to the lawsuit.

“You were a division chief. Race didn’t hold you back. You’re on crack,” the text read. “Harassing women and men in the department is what held you back and got you fired. Dumb ass.”

That lawsuit will be settled this week, according to Coppage’s attorney Joe Budd. Coppage agreed to take a voluntary dismissal “in pursuant to a settlement reached between the parties,” Budd said. 

Coppage tendered his resignation on June 18, the day after the INDY emailed the city asking for comment on the then-active lawsuit. 

Budd was tight-lipped about the terms of the agreement but said the settlement did not undermine the basis for the lawsuit. 

“Kevin is standing by his story,” Budd told the INDY. “None of that is a retraction in any way.”

Follow Senior Staff Writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to

Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.