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FDNY renames its highest medal of honor because of founder's racist views

The New York City Fire Department has renamed its highest medal of honor, the James Gordon Bennett medal, citing its namesake’s racist and pro-slavery editorials for the New York Herald in the 1800s.

The FDNY said on Tuesday that the award would be re-named in honor of Chief Peter J. Ganci Jr, the highest-ranking member of the department to die in the line of duty when he perished responding to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

In a statement, FDNY Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said: ‘This change is not meant to erase history, and it does not discredit the actions, memory, or valor of the 152 members of our Department who have been awarded this medal since its inception.’

‘Instead, this important change is meant to help us create a better present and future for our FDNY, one we can all be proud of,’ Nigro added.

New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett

Chief Peter J. Ganci Jr, the highest-ranking member of the department to die in the line of duty when he perished responding to the terror attacks of September 11, 2001

The New York City Fire Department has renamed its highest medal of honor, changing the name from publisher James Gordon Bennett (left) to honor Chief Peter J. Ganci Jr (right)

The award was originally created in 1896, when Bennett donated a $1,500 endowment to the department in gratitude after firefighters put out a blaze at his home.

Bennett was the founder of the New York Herald, a popular daily newspaper that staunchly supported the Democratic Party and slavery during the Civil War.

In editorials, Bennett penned tirades against Abraham Lincoln and what he dubbed the president’s ‘n*****’ war. 

In one 1859 editorial in response to abolitionist John Brown’s raid in Harper’s Ferry, he wrote: ‘The whole history of negro insurrections proves that there is no race of men so brutal and bloody-minded as the negro.’

The shocking editorial continued: ‘the negro, once roused to bloodshed and in possession of arms, is as uncontrollable and irrational as a wild beast…’ 

These views have no place in any society, and I believe we must cease including this individual’s name, and therefore his legacy, in our annual celebration,’ Nigro said in a statement. 

The newly designed medal

It will honor Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci Jr

The newly designed medal (left) will honor Chief of Department Peter J. Ganci Jr

‘This award for bravery should not be tied to someone who never served the FDNY, risked his life to save others, and who advocated for hate and slavery,’ the commissioner continued. 

‘That award should be named for the Chief who was leading our troops on our darkest day, a great man who gave his life overseeing the greatest rescue operation in FDNY history,’ he said.

The issue of the medal’s namesake was first raised in 2017, when James Tempro, who became the first black firefighter to receive the honor in 1969, spoke out about Bennett’s noxious views.

‘When I received the award in 1969, I had no idea of the history of Bennett, who he was or what he stood for,’ Tempro told the New York Daily News. ‘But now that I’ve learned more about his beliefs, that he was a racist who supported slavery, it demeans the medal for me a bit.’

‘For me, it’s like saying, here’s an award named for George Wallace,’ said Tempro, referring to the pro-segregation former governor of Alabama. 

In New York City, Bennett is also honored by a memorial statue that stands in Herald Square

In New York City, Bennett is also honored by a memorial statue that stands in Herald Square

Chief Ganci, the medal’s new namesake, was the highest ranking FDNY member killed on September 11, 2001. 

In his 33-year career, he held every uniformed rank and received numerous citations for bravery, including a medal for rescuing a child from a fire. 

‘Our highest honor for bravery to a Firefighter or Fire Officer should be named for an individual who swore an oath to serve others and who once crawled down a hallway like all our Firefighters have done to search for New Yorkers trapped by fire,’ said Nigro.

‘It should be named for a legendary Chief who is still revered by all of us so many years after his death.’

In New York City, Bennett is also honored by a memorial statue that stands in Herald Square.

He also has a street named for him from West 181st Street to Hillside Avenue in the Washington Heights neighborhood of northern Manhattan, and a park, Bennett Park, named in his honor along Fort Washington Avenue.

Who was James Gordon Bennett?

James Gordon Bennett was born in Scotland in 1795, and at the age of 24, he immigrated to North America and worked for a series of newspapers.

He founded the New York Herald in 1835, and just a year into the paper’s run he shocked readers with front-page coverage of the murder of prostitute Helen Jewett.

The Herald soon became the most popular and profitable in the U.S.

In the run-up to the Civil War, Bennett staunchly supported the Democratic Party and slavery.

In editorials, Bennett penned tirades against Abraham Lincoln and what he dubbed the president’s ‘n*****’ war. 

In one 1859 editorial in response to abolitionist John Brown’s raid in Harper’s Ferry, he wrote: ‘The whole history of negro insurrections proves that there is no race of men so brutal and bloody-minded as the negro.’

The shocking editorial continued: ‘the negro, once roused to bloodshed and in possession of arms, is as uncontrollable and irrational as a wild beast…’  

The Herald had the highest circulation in the country when he turned it over to his son James Gordon Bennett Jr at age 25 in 1866.

However, the Herald soon faced heavy competition from the New York Tribune, the New York World, and later, the New York Times.

In 1924, after Bennett Jr’s death, the New York Herald was acquired by its smaller rival the New York Tribune, to form the New York Herald Tribune, which ceased publication in 1966.

That newspaper’s European edition was eventually acquired by the New York Times, and is now published as the New York Times International Edition.  

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