Capt. Walter Green Bratton, Ontario’s first Black firefighter, was a ‘homegrown hero’ – San Bernardino Sun

It takes many individuals to build a successful community. In the Inland Empire during the 20th century we had a myriad of well-known personalities like Dorothy Inghram, the first Black teacher in San Bernardino County and the first Black school administrator in the state of California. Milton R. Sage was the man who came up with the idea of a “one-stop” complete shopping experience. And, of course, we can all thank the McDonald brothers for helping change the way we eat.

Capt. Walter Green Bratton with the Ontario Fire Department, this photo was taken in 1997. (Courtesy of the Bratton family)

However, working alongside each of these justly honored men and women, are countless “heroes” who somehow never received enough recognition for the impact they made in this region.

One such person was Walter Green Bratton, the first African American fire captain in the city of Ontario.

Walter was born Nov. 3, 1951. to James Lawrence and Elvenia Steele Bratton in Rock Hill, South Carolina. At age 4 his family moved to Southern California and settled in Ontario. This would be home for him for the rest of his life.

Bratton attended Grove Elementary, Euclid Elementary, De Anza Middle School and then Ontario High School, where he played varsity football and baseball. He graduated in 1970 as a member of the school’s second graduating class.

During his high school years, Walter worked for his father’s janitorial business, JL Bratton and Company. He also sky-capped along side his father at Ontario International Airport as well as at John Wayne Airport in Irvine.

After graduation, he earned an associate’s degree from Chaffey College and a degree in electronics from DeVry University in Phoenix. While attending DeVry, Walter worked at YPS and met his future wife, Marilyn Case.

Upon returning to Ontario in 1974, Walter was encouraged by his father to submit his application with the Ontario Fire Department and on Feb. 2, 1975 he became the first African American to be hired, launching a 31-year career.

As the first Black firefighter in the city, Walter undoubtedly had moments where he was singled out for his skin color. However, he never complained about racism, kept his cool and worked hard.

Walter’s son Aaron, 38, proudly compared his well-liked father with Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier as a trail blazer in becoming the first African American Major League Baseball Player in 1947.

Walter and Marilyn Bratton (Courtesy of the Bratton family)
Walter and Marilyn Bratton (Courtesy of the Bratton family)

The younger Bratton recalled: He always carried himself with integrity, was authentic with people and emphasized collaboration and to become part of the whole. Also, while Walter was proud to be the first Black man hired, he always stressed that he did not want to be the last.

Similar to what has transpired with baseball Hall of Famer Robinson, Walter successfully fulfilled that goal.

Cherina Betters, Walter’s niece who was treated like a daughter, shared fond memories of being challenged by her uncle to follow her goal and not settle for mediocrity. She emphasized that he was always looking at the bigger picture.

These attributes undoubtedly played a strong role on Aug. 14, 1988, when Walter Bratton was promoted to the first African American fire captain for Ontario.

Although he passed the test to be promoted to battalion chief a few years later, a vacancy never opened before his exam results expired. He retired Dec. 23, 2006.

After retirement, Bratton volunteered as chaplain for the Fire Department over the next 15 years.

Admired by family and friends for his moral and ethical outlook on life, Bratton served on the greater Ontario Leadership Development Program initiated through the Ontario Chamber of Commerce in 1986. Later, Walter served with his sister on the steering committee for the GOLD Program.

A devout Christian, he also donated and volunteered his talents, skills and finances for the benefit of Mt. Zion Church of Ontario. He became the longest serving deacon in the history of the church.

This amazing man somehow was able to balance his work life with family obligations. Walter and Marilyn would take the kids on many family vacations. Major holidays in the Bratton household were all about his family and his blessings. Through the years, his kids’ admiration for him made Father’s Day another Christmas and his birthday practically a national holiday.

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