Widow of Milford’s first Black firefighter objects to use of husband’s name for scholarship

MILFORD — The widow of the city’s first Black firefighter is calling for two officials’ resignations after she says they planned to start a scholarship in her late husband’s name without her permission.

Jolyn Walker, wife of the late Judge Walker, said Milford Chief of Staff Justin Rosen and Fire Commissioner Pete Smith had planned to start a scholarship in her husband’s name that would have helped people of color pay for test or certification fees to apply for a position within the fire department.

Judge Walker retired in 1993 after 28 years of service. He passed away in 2018.

Jolyn Walker said she thought the officials were “exploiting” her husband’s name.

Rosen said after learning of Jolyn Walker’s objections, Judge Walker’s name was removed from consideration.

“I am sorry that Mrs. Walker has decided not to participate, but remain excited about the idea of working with a community organization on a scholarship program, which will help achieve our shared goal of diversifying Milford’s Fire Department,” Rosen said.

In a letter, Walker claims she wasn’t notified of the plan to use her husband’s name until the scholarship was well underway and she doesn’t trust the funds would have been used for the designated purpose.

“You can literally use my husband’s name, and because he is Black, kind of well known, that can pull in a lot of money,” she said, adding that if the scholarship were to fail the funds could potentially be used for “something else that is not honoring my husband.”

“So I would never let my husband's name be used that way unless it was something I knew was going to get results and good results,” she said.

She also stated that she and her husband had already established the Washington Walker Family Fund at the The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven to support local organizations.

Rosen said his involvement with the scholarship has been limited.

“I have nothing but respect for Judge Walker’s legacy as Milford’s first Black firefighter and for his widow, Jolyn Walker,” said Rosen. “I’ve known Jolyn for a number of years, and we have worked together on Milford’s Racial Justice book club and various other community events and activities.”

“It’s my understanding that a member of the Fire Commission was working to partner with a Milford nonprofit community group to establish a scholarship that would cover the fire department application fee and potentially the cost of an EMT course for minority applicants,” he added. “This goal was to encourage a more diverse pool of applicants and make the process more accessible to everyone, which is an effort we welcome when hiring for city positions. One idea that was discussed was naming the fund in Mr. Walker’s honor.”

Smith said he is a strong believer that the city workforce should better reflect the demographics of the city.

“To that end, I was seeking a local partnership to help mitigate costly barriers to employment that disproportionally impact people of color, into one of the most public facing workforce in our community,” he said. “Recruiting and retaining a diverse public safety workforce was, and remains, my sole objective for this initiative. After correspondence with Mrs. Walker, I removed her husband’s name from this effort at her request, and never had any ill intent toward her.”

Walker said if they would use the money to do an anti-racist training within the fire department she might have said yes.

Another way Walker said would be appropriate to honor her husband’s legacy is to establish a recruitment team or a fund to pay the recruitment team. It would target women and people of color to apply for the fire department, like the one spearheaded by Gary Tinney of New Haven’s Firebirds.