(CNN) -- The New York City Fire Department on Thursday will graduate its most diverse class ever after decades of criticism and legal battles over the racial composition of its firefighting force.
Of the 242 probationary firefighters joining the ranks, 62% are minorities. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano will preside over the ceremony.
In the last 12 years, the fire department has doubled the number of minority firefighters, the city said in a statement.
One year ago, a federal judge ordered New York to pay $128 million to firefighters who claimed in court that the department's entrance exam was deliberately designed to keep African-Americans and Latinos off the force.
"It is a very important step," said Ghita Schwarz, senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented a group of black firefighters, referring to the latest graduating class. "It's due almost entirely to the efforts of the Vulcan Society to make sure that the tests that the fire department used were fair."
Last year's ruling followed a lawsuit that alleged that the exams had little to do with firefighting and instead focused on cognitive and reading skills. Because of the hereditary nature of the fire department, white candidates were recruited and supported throughout the application process by family or neighborhood contacts and whites consistently passed while minority candidates failed.
Paul Washington, a former president of the Vulcan Society, a group of black firefighters, praised racial makeup of the latest class.
"We've got to continue down this path," he said. "We've been assured a more fair testing procedure. We've also made them increase their recruiting in neighborhoods of color but these have to continue... We need a commissioner and a mayor who are committed to this if we want to see a bigger number of people of color coming onto the job."
The lack of minorities in U.S. fire departments has been the focus of many lawsuits. The last available national figures, from the 2000 census, show 8.4% of the nation's firefighting forces to be black and 8.6% to be Latino. Blacks are 12.2% of the population; Latinos are roughly 16%. However, other big cities have made much faster progress at diversifying their ranks. More than half of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles fire departments members are black or Latino.