From Millionaire Executive to Fire Captain: The Changing Face of Black Mothers

Ebony, May 2002 | Go to article overview

From Millionaire Executive to Fire Captain: The Changing Face of Black Mothers


W.E.B. DuBois said that at the beginning of time "the great Black race" gave the world "the Mother-idea," and that no group of mothers anywhere has a greater tradition of heroism and sheroism.

Behind the cell phones and the Palm Pilots and computers, the modern reincarnation of the mother-beginners are still making miracles and giving birth to miracles. Still the glue of Black America, they are pioneering in the creation of a new image of a mother who makes millions of dollars, puts out fires, performs operations and writes poetry, and who is at the same time totally involved in raising and motivating children. The multimillionaire entrepreneur, fire captain, physician and writer portrayed on the following pages are representative of the millions of African-American mothers who are keeping the ancient faith in a new time and a new place.

FIRE CAPTAIN

CAPTAIN SYLIVIA SMITH-PHIFER, the highest-ranking Black woman in the history of the Charlotte, N.C., Fire Department, is a pioneer, a professional lifesaver and a full-time mom. Captain Smith-Phifer says determination, "the fire in her belly, "is the secret to her success.

"Just give me a challenge," says the 5-foot, 107-pound firefighter, "and you're going to know that I've put every bit of my effort and my energy into it."

For 10 straight days a month, Captain Smith-Phifer works 24-hour shifts (8 a.m. to 8 a.m.) at the fire station. For the remaining 20 or so days of the month, she's a stay-at-home mom. Smith-Phifer and her husband, Jeff Phifer, also a Charlotte firefighter, have three sons Alexander, 7, Aaron, 5, and Zion, 2--and she's totally immersed in the daily lives of the children.

Hours of intense physical training and/or battling a blaze or two do not exclude her from doing the mommy stuff.

"Sometimes the juggling of the schedules or dealing with a really busy day is overwhelming," she says. "But regardless, when I get home in the morning, it's my children's time." She spends hours studying with her oldest son, Alexander, and is a Class Mom Representative at her middle son's school. And she's fond of taking nature walks and visiting the zoo with her baby boy while his siblings are in school.

The fire captain avoids burnout by relying on a circle of support that includes her spouse, family members and fellow firefighters.

"When I became pregnant, I was reassigned to office duty, and everyone in my department was very supportive of me," she recalls. "I have great family support--if I'm not at my sons' schools, my husband or my mom is there. And when I returned to work after having my sons, my mom helped baby-sit and brought them to the station twice a day so that I could nurse them."

The trailblazing fire captain, a graduate of the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, holds a bachelor of science degree in finance and was formerly in the insurance business. In 1992, her sister encouraged her to take the firefighter's exam.

Although she knew she would be entering a male-dominated arena, she never imagined that she would make history or that fighting fires was her destiny. "But when I came [on the force], I knew I had found my calling."

Captain Smith-Phifer says her other true calling is to prepare her sons for greatness.

"It's hard being a Black male," she explains, "so I try to do everything in life to make sure that my sons will have every tool available so that they can succeed."

ENTREPRENEUR

VALERIE DANIELS-CARTER, president and CEO of Milwaukee-based V&J Holding Companies, which operates 141 Burger King and Pizza Hut restaurants, has a company philosophy that says: "You ARE THE STANDARD OF EXCELLENCE." As the mother of a young son, Jeffrey Alan Carter II, Daniels-Carter applies that same philosophy to herself and her family.

"I try to develop him as a well-rounded child with his first priority being to set his goals on God and his second priority being that of self-esteem, self-value and self-worth, and then making sure he understands that he is a very integral part of my life," says Daniels-Carter of her 8-year-old son. …

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