HAMPTON, Va. (WAVY) — A Hampton woman who dedicated nearly two decades of her life to fighting fires says her biggest battle came when she tried to fight the city she served.
“I started in Hampton January 6, 1997. I remember the date,” said Richelle Wallace, grinning from ear to ear. “I mean, I was a firefighter. That’s not something that you see girls doing at that time.”
For nearly 20 years, she rose through the ranks. But in 2013, that rise stopped short at captain.
“Three people were interviewed for a position that called for a particular certification. Only one of those, the white male, had that certification. I had that certification as well, but I wasn’t interviewed,” she told WAVY.com.
Wallace felt she was being held back because she was a woman, and a minority.
“It was a double standard: Just because you’re a female, you can’t do it. That mindset is in the heads of a lot of people. They’re not expecting you to be able to accomplish that, and I had to prove myself time and time again,” she said.
After not getting that interview for a captain position, Wallace filed an EEOC complaint. She says the next time there was an opening for captain, she got it.
“It just took away everything I had worked for. It made it seem like you’re giving it to me just to shut me up rather than on the work that I’ve done and my performance.”
Still wanting the department to be held accountable, Wallace filed a discrimination lawsuit against the city.
In her suit, filed in 2015, Wallace alleges the fire division “has a policy, habit, and custom of harassing, intimidating, and discriminating against African-American females in the applications of its employment policies and procedures.”
Wallace says once she filed the suit, she says she got moved from station to station and eventually went out on leave, due to the stress.
While out on leave, Wallace says she was confronted with a mandatory counseling form that cited “abusive or offensive language,” “poor judgment,” “absenteeism” and “inappropriate behavior.” The division claims it was made aware of her leadership issues on May 4, 2015.
For Wallace, that didn’t make any sense, because just four days before that — on April 30, 2015 — she got a four on the performance review.
“On the fire ground, a very sound officer. Made great decisions, sound decisions,” said Retired Battalion Chief Nick Wooten.
Wooten was Wallace’s supervisor when she was eventually promoted to captain.
“A four is above average. It’s three, four, five. As long as you get somewhere in there, you have a great performance,” Wooten said.
Wallace was suspended for refusing to sign the counseling paperwork.
The City of Hampton, and the fire division, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Wallace still does not have answers as to why suddenly, after years of strong reviews, her leadership was called into question.
“At that point I knew, it was no win. There was no way for me to stay in there, because they were after me, is how I felt.”
In 2015, Wallace retired. She says the stress was too much. She’s in the process of settling with the city. She can’t discuss the details, but wanted to speak up, hoping her story could help another woman,
“Honestly, it’s not the money. It’s the change. They’re still not trying to make a change. Then I can’t just walk away.”