Second Battalion Chief Shawn McCarty said it has been a tradition for new firefighters to bring a present.
“It’s not mandatory, it’s voluntary,” he explained. “You come in bearing gifts. The usual gift is doughnuts, but you are allowed to bring whatever you want to bring in.”
Pattison, a probationary firefighter, decided to bring a watermelon. The African-American firefighters however were instantly offended. Some 90 percent of the workforce at Engine 55 are black.
“When you get your first detail at a firehouse you pretty much know what you are getting yourself into,” says Patrick Trout. “So you would have to say it was probably a bad call.”
Fox News wanted to know how the gift could be racist. “Is it racially insensitive to bring a watermelon into a fire house?”
McCarty responded: “To some people.”
But when Fox called Pattison by phone, he said his gesture was well-intended and that he did not mean to offend his fellow firefighters.
Fire Commissioner Eric Jones said Pattison, who is white, has been officially discharged.
In a statement Jones says: “There is zero tolerance for discriminatory behavior inside the Detroit Fire Department. On Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, at Engine 55, a trial firefighter (probationary employee) engaged in unsatisfactory work behavior which was deemed offensive and racially insensitive to members of the Detroit Fire Department.
“After a thorough investigation, it was determined that the best course of action was to terminate the employment of this probationary employee.”
Fox News questioned the extreme reaction to the gift. “Should he have lost his job over a watermelon?”
Chief McCarthy concluded that he did not agree with the harsh measure. “I don’t think so,” McCarty said. “Between what he did and what was there, are a few things that could have been done.”
But the link between African Americans and watermelons was promoted in part by African American minstrels themselves who sang popular songs such as “The Watermelon Song” and “Oh, Dat Watermelon” in their shows, and which were set down in print as early as in the 1870s.
At the National Book Awards ceremony in November 2014, author Daniel Handler made a remark about watermelons deemed “outrageous” after black author Jacqueline Woodson was presented with an award for young people’s literature.
During the ceremony, Handler noted that Woodson was allergic to watermelon, a reference to the stereotype about blacks loving watermelons. His comments drew hysteria and Handler apologized via Twitter and donated $10,000 to We Need Diverse Books, and promised to match donations up to $100,000.