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The African American Experience in the U.S. Navy 

Sketch of first 13 African American commissioned and warrant officers in the U.S. Navy.
The Golden Thirteen were 13 enlisted Sailors who became the first African American commissioned and warrant officers in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Poster; By William M. Moser; C. 1980; Unframed Dimensions 20H X 26W. (2002-071-19)


Today’s African American Sailors stand proudly knowing the accomplishments of their predecessors, including the eight black Sailors who earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War; Dick Henry Turpin, one of the survivors of the explosion aboard the battleship Maine; and the 14 black female yeomen who enlisted during World War I. The Navy planted the seeds for racial integration during World War II and trained a generation of outstanding African American officers and enlisted personnel who provided critical leadership and expertise during the Cold War.

The African American Sailors in the U.S. Navy Chronology follows the contributions of African Americans in the history of the U.S. Navy from its early years to the present day.

The Navy Art online exhibit, African Americans in the US Navy, highlights the artwork and images within the collection that document the changing and expanding duties of African-American Sailors, starting with the Revolutionary War. 

Service on Ships, Submarines, and Ashore

African Americans have a long heritage of service, first with state and continental navies, and then with the Department of the Navy since its establishment in 1798. They continue to distinguish themselves ashore, on ships, in aircraft, and on submarines through times of peace and conflict.

Camp Robert Smalls

The Centennial Seven

The Golden Thirteen

Hughie Lee-Smith, Navy sailor and artist

USS Mason

Port Chicago Naval Magazine Explosion

 African Americans in General Service, 1942

The Integration of the WAVES and the Navy’s First Female African-American Officers

African Americans in the U.S. Navy During the Civil War: The Experiences of the Potomac Flotilla

Executive Order 9981, Desegregating the Armed Forces. On 26 July 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 to abolish discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in the U.S. armed forces.

Ships Named in Honor of African Americans

USS Oscar Austin (DDG-79)
USNS Carl Brashear (T-AKE-7)
USS Jesse L. Brown (DE-1089)
USS George Washington Carver (SSBN-656)
USNS Charlton (T-AKR-314)
USS Rodney M. Davis (FFG-60)
USNS Charles Drew (T-AKE-10)
USNS Medgar Evers (T-AKE-13)
USS Gravely (DDG-107)
USS Harmon (DE-678)
USNS Henson (T-AGS-63)
USS Miller (DE-1091)
USS Frank E. Petersen, Jr. (DDG-121)
USS Pinckney (DDG-91)
USS Robert Smalls (CG-62)
USNS Watson (T-AKR-310)

Trailblazers: Meeting the Challenge

During the 1960s and 1970s, African Americans began commanding ships, submarines, and shore establishments. In 1974, the Navy issued its first Navy Equal Opportunity Manual and two years later issued its first Navy Affirmative Action Plan. And now, as in previous periods, African-American officers and enlisted personnel have continued to stand out among the Navy’s best and brightest, gaining recognition in their roles as trailblazers:

Fleet Master Chief: Master Chief April D. Beldo
Master Diver: Master Chief Boatswain's Mate Carl M. Brashear
Naval Aviator: Ensign Jesse Brown
First African American U.S. Naval Academy Graduate: Wesley A. Brown
Naval Flag Officer: Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely Jr.
Navy Cross Recipient: Cook Third Class Doris Miller
WWI Chief: Chief Gunner's Mate John Henry "Dick" Turpin
First African American Female Officers: Frances Eliza Wills and Harriet Ida Pickens
First African American to command a nuclear-powered submarine: Captain Chancellor Alphonso "Pete" Tzomes

Oral Histories
Brashear, Carl M., Master Chief Boatswain's Mate, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Brown, Wesley A., Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Gravely, Samuel L., Jr, Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy. (Ret.)
Sublett, Frank E., Jr., (Member of the Golden Thirteen)
Barnes, Dr. Samuel E., (Member of the Golden Thirteen)
Cooper, George C. (Member of the Golden Thirteen)
White, William Sylvester (Member of the Golden Thirteen)
Martin, Graham E., (Member of the Golden Thirteen)
Reagan, John W., (Member of the Golden Thirteen)

African American Naval History
USNS Sojourner Truth
USS Frank E. Petersen Jr. (DDG-121)

Related Reading
Diary of Michael Shiner−“The only master I have now is the Constitution,” stated Shiner, emphatically, reflecting on his hard won freedom. Today Michael G. Shiner is famous for his diary chronicling events at the Washington Navy Yard and the District of Columbia from 1813 to 1869. Among the diary’s better known passages are Shiner’s accounts of the War of 1812, the 1833 abduction of his family by slave dealers, and the strike of 1835.
The Negro in the Navy by Miller−“The Negro in the Navy was then and has been ever since no less devoted to duty and as fearless of death as Crispus Attucks, when he fell on Boston Common, the first martyr of American independence. In speaking of colored seamen, who showed great heroism...” Pages 555-599 from Kelly Miller's History of the World War for Human Rights.
Z-Gram #66: (Equal Opportunity)−In Z-66 dated December 17, 1970, Admiral Zumwalt noted “there is significant discrimination in the Navy.” However, he didn’t shrink from it. “We do have problems, and it is my intention . . . to take prompt steps toward their solution.” To emphasize his determination, he gave commanders until January 15, 1971—less than a month—to take action on the directives. He wrapped up the Z-gram saying, “There is no black Navy, no white Navy—just one Navy—the United States Navy.” Minority firsts in the Navy in the succeeding years can trace their roots to Z-gram #66.
Emancipation Proclamation, U.S. Navy General Order No. 4−"That on the first day of January. . . all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever, free; and the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of any such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom."
Long Passage to Korea: Black Sailors and the Integration of the U.S. Navy−The outbreak of war in Korea launched a period of rapid growth for the Navy. The new recruits, reservists recalled to wartime active duty, and newly commissioned officers included African Americans who, thanks to President Truman’s directive of July 1948 that ordered the armed forces to integrate, often received better treatment and greater opportunity in uniform than they had encountered as civilians. The Navy that fought the Korean War made a determined effort to carry out President Truman’s racial policy.  

Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. - Quote
Published: Fri Apr 12 12:46:11 EDT 2024