The accomplishments of Joe J. Douglas Jr. — who shattered racial barriers by becoming Topeka’s first African American fire chief — were “extremely monumental” to others who looked like him, former Topeka Fire Chief Greg Bailey said Wednesday.
“He represented hope. He represented faith. And he represented strength, not only in his physical stature but also in his spirit,” Bailey said of Douglas, who died at age 91 on Tuesday at a Topeka hospital.
Douglas and his wife, Nathalia Douglas, had celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on Jan. 29, according to obituary information provided to The Topeka Capital-Journal.
Services will be held at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Asbury-Mount Olive United Methodist Church, 1196 S.W. Buchanan. Bowser Johnson Funeral Chapel is in charge of arrangements.
Joe Douglas joined the Topeka Fire Department in October 1950, rose through the ranks and was appointed fire chief in August 1983 by then-Mayor Doug Wright, according to Capital-Journal archives. He retired as chief in December 1989.
Bailey, an African American who joined the fire department in 1985 and served as chief from 2012 until he retired in 2016, said Douglas’ success as a trailblazer gave confidence to fellow African Americans that they, too, could achieve great things.
“For me, personally, it was great knowing that I did not have to blaze a trail, rather that I could follow in his footsteps,” Bailey said.
Douglas also served as Santa Claus for many years on KTWU-TV, Bailey noted.
“He was like a brother, a father, a grandpa, a constant means of support to me,” Bailey said. “He’s the reason why I can be strong for Mrs. Douglas, the love of his life.”
Joe Douglas was elected in 1977 and served eight years on the board of education of Topeka Unified School District 501, for which he spent two terms as president.
A fast-pitch softball player nicknamed “the Babe Ruth of Topeka softball,” Douglas was inducted in 1995 into the Kansas Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame and was listed by The Capital-Journal in 2011 as one of Topeka’s top 100 athletes.
In addition, Douglas played basketball, football, handball and golf, including having shot a hole in one.
Obituary information provided to The Capital-Journal told how Douglas also:
• Was an ardent advocate for civil rights who wrote articles, delivered lectures and consulted on racism, desegregation and other minority issues.
• Received numerous awards for community service, including a presidential citation for extraordinary service from what was then the Boys Club of America in 1973 and the Kansas Friends of Education award in 1986.
• Was known for his amateur photography depicting the history and social life of the African American community in Topeka during the 1950s and 1960s, with many of his photos and writings maintained in a collection at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.
• Served on the boards of the Topeka Boys’ Club, the Boy Scouts of America and Valeo Behavioral Health Care.
• Chaired the United Methodist Church Kansas East Conference on Religion and Race, served on the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy and was a leader in the United Methodist Youth Fellowship Institute.
• Was an accomplished singer and woodworker who had a booming voice and used to make chess tables.