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African American Sailors in the U.S. Navy

A Chronology


Painting of African-American troops unloading a Landing Craft Mechanized while standing in the surf.

African-American troops unloading an Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM) (John Turnball, Supplies Are Landed, 1945, oil on canvas, 28 X 36", Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC).


The following chronology follows the contributions of African Americans in the history of the U.S. Navy from its early years to the present day. The chronology is not all encompassing as the history of the  achievements of African Americans in the U.S.Navy is still being written. 

1775-1783: African American Naval Participation in the American Revolution: Over 10% of the Continental Navy was African American during the American Revolution—a higher percentage than in the ground services. Even greater numbers of African Americans served aboard state naval vessels and privateers.

The Continental Navy recruited both free and enslaved Blacks, partly out of a need for laborers and partly because many African Americans were experienced seafarers, having sailed before with the Royal Navy, state navies, and merchantmen. Black sailors usually performed menial tasks on ships but some served in other roles, including carpenters and even pilots.

One of the most famous African American seaman from this era was James Forten, who enlisted on a privateer as a powder boy, and spent time on a British prison barge [1]. After his release, he became a successful sailmaker in Philadelphia and a prominent abolitionist.

A sizable number of African Americans identified with the British causes, especially after John Murray, the earl of Dunmore and Virginia’s royal governor, issued a proclamation on 7 November 1775 offering freedom to slaves and indentured servants who would leave their “patriotic” owners and join the British Army [2]. One sailor who allied with the British cause was Thomas Jeremiah, a prominent South Carolina free Black man, pilot, and fisherman. Jeremiah urged other African Americans to assist the Royal Navy in capturing Charleston harbor because Britain had come “help the poor negroes.” Accused of inciting a slave insurrection, Jeremiah was convicted, hanged, and his body burned by city authorities.  Historians have estimated that a quarter of all escaped slaves who joined the British cause served in some capacity on British merchant and naval ships [3].

August 1798: Ban on Black Sailors: Shortly after the United States entered into the Quasi-War with France, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert banned “negroes and mulatoes [sic]” from naval service [4]. This followed similar proclamations made earlier by the Secretary of War in March of the same year regarding the Marine Corps and the Army. Despite this official prohibition, Blacks maintained a consistent presence in the U.S. Navy throughout the Early Republic and the War of 1812.

1812: African American Naval Participation in the War of 1812: Blacks represent one-sixth of naval personnel in this conflict. They distinguished themselves at the Battle of Lake Erie and other significant campaigns. The USS Constitution Museum has identified the names of three African-American sailors who served on that ship during the War of 1812: Jesse Williams, James Bennett, and David Debias. By looking at the records of 6,000 American prisoners of war held at Dartmoor Prison in England, historians have estimated that 1,000 were Black men from privateers, naval vessels, letters of marque, or Royal Navy sailors who refused to fight against America.

3 March 1813: Reversal of Race Ban: The Navy officially reversed the August 1798 ban on African Americans sailors in the fleet, allowing for “persons of color” to serve on “public vessels” of the United States. 

13 September 1839:  Five Percent Limit on Blacks in Naval Service: On 13 September 1839, acting Secretary of the Navy, Isaac Chauncey, issued a circular declaring that in view of complaints, the number of Blacks in naval service would be no more than five percent of the total number entered under any circumstances and no slave was to be entered under any circumstances. Commodore Lewis Warrington, Commandant of Gosport Navy Yard, compiled a list enumerating Blacks who had entered into service for the year prior, which revealed a higher percentage.

5 August 1842: Announcement of Racial Quotas: Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur promised southern Congressmen that “no more than one-twentieth part of the crew of any vessel” would be African American [5]. Although Upshur was a staunch advocate of naval expansion, his slaveholding roots as a plantation farmer on Virginia’s Eastern Shore allied him with southern law makers intent upon limiting Black participation in a growing U.S. Navy.


 Black crew members sewing and relaxing on the forecastle aboard USS Miami (1862)

Black crew members sewing and relaxing on the forecastle of Miami (1861), circa 1864-65 (NH 55510).

1861: African American Participation in U.S. Navy during the Civil War: In a letter dated 25 September 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles authorized the recruitment of escaped or liberated slaves in the Atlantic Blockading Squadron [6]. These former slaves made up a considerable number of Black U.S. Navy sailors in the squadron, and by extension, the entire enlisted U.S. Navy. Overall, twenty percent of the U.S. Navy was African American [7]. Blacks served on 700 ships in the U.S. Navy and eight received the Congressional Medal of Honor: Aaron Anderson, Robert Blake, William H. Brown, Wilson Brown, Thomas English, John Henry Lawson, James Mifflin, and Joachim Pease. After the Civil War, the Navy continued the process of short-term contracts for Black enlisted Sailors and excluding Blacks from the officer ranks until 1942.

Although the Navy Department did not establish a formal system of racial separation during the Civil War, Secretary Welles's guidelines for recruiting and rating Black sailors limited their assignments to menial roles—landsmen and servants. Of the approximately 17,600 men whose base rating is recorded, more than 14,400 (or 82 percent) were rated as boy or landsman.


Engraved portrait of Robert Smalls, originally published in Harper’s Weekly, circa 1862 (NH 58870).

Engraved portrait of Robert Smalls, originally published in Harper’s Weekly, circa 1862 (NH 58870).

13 May 1862: Robert Smalls, a former slave and the pilot of the Planter, a Confederate transport, commandeered the ship with the assistance of other crew members and delivered the ship to the Union forces under the guns of five Confederate forts. He also delivered the captain’s codebook containing Confederate signals and a map of torpedoes that had laid in Charleston harbor. As an experienced pilot, he was able to convey other valuable intelligence to the Union Navy. Among those on board Planter were the wives and children of the crew members. Smalls later served in the Union Navy on Keokuk, and then again on Planter as a pilot and acting captain. After the war, Smalls served in the South Carolina House of Representatives, the South Carolina Senate, and in the U.S. House of Representatives.

 

 

21 September 1872: James H. Conyers became the first African American admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA). He was cursed at, spat upon and physically abused. Some of his classmates even attempted to drown him. He resigned in October 1873 because of hazing and poor grades. Two other African Americans attempted to break the color barrier at the USNA in the 1870s (Henry Edwin Baker Jr. and Alonzo Clifton McClennan) but pervasive racism and other issues prevented them from graduating [8].

1896: Segregation increases in the Navy: Following the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that constitutionally sanctioned separate but equal, or Jim Crowism, violence against Blacks increased and opportunities for Blacks decreased.

1898: African American participation in the Spanish American War: Despite the onset of Jim Crow, African Americans were still recruited for the Navy in sizable numbers in 1890s (9.5% of enlistments in 1890 alone). Most served as cooks, stewards, and landsmen but some worked as firemen, storekeepers, carpenters, water tenders, oilers, and other specialized billets. For the most part, they messed and berthed with shipmates from a variety of races and ethnicities, including white sailors, Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos. None rose above the rank of third class petty officer.


A group of crew members inside the torpedo room of a U.S. Navy ship, Maine.

The Black sailor on the left is a member of the “Gunner’s Gang,” photographed in one of the Maine (ACR-1)’s torpedo rooms. Thirty of the ship’s crew of 350 were African American at the time of her sinking in Havana harbor in 1898 (NH 50183).

There were other Black naval heroes as well from this war. Fireman First Class Robert Penn received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism aboard Iowa (BB-4) off Santiago, Cuba. According to his citation, “performing his duty at the risk of serious scalding at the time of the blowing out of the manhole gasket on board the vessel, Penn hauled the fire while standing on a board thrown across a coal bucket one foot above the boiling water, which was still blowing from the boiler.” No Black sailor has received this decoration since Penn.

1913-1917: Segregation Increases in the Navy: The Wilson Administration resegregated the Federal government in 1913 and by 1917, only three percent of the service was Black. In April 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, a strong proponent of segregation from North Carolina, justified a policy of segregation and institutional racism in a letter to New Jersey Senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen. “As a matter of policy,” he wrote, “it has been customary to enlist colored men in the various ratings of the messman branch . . . and in the lower ratings of the fireroom; permitting colored men to sleep and eat by themselves.”

21 March 1917: Women enter the Navy: The Navy began enlisting women, known as Yeoman (F.), on 21 March 1917 when Loretta Perfectus Walsh, a civilian clerk at the Philadelphia recruiting center, became the first woman to enlist in the Naval Reserves, which later known as “Yeowoman and Yeomanette.” With the support of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, more women followed and by the end of World War I, 11,880 women had enlisted [9].

The first Black women to serve in the U.S. Navy entered through the Yeoman (F) program late in the war and worked in the Muster Roll Section at the Washington Navy Yard. Of those women, only the names of the “Golden Fourteen” are definitively known: Armelda H. Greene, Kathryn E. Finch, Pocahontas A. Jackson, Fannie A. Foote, Ruth A. Davis (nee Wellborn, and shortly Osborne during service), Olga F. Jones, Sarah Davis, Sarah E. Howard, Marie E. Mitchell, Anna G. Smallwood, Maude C. Williams, Carol E. Washington, Josie B. Washington, and Inez B. McIntosh.

All female yeoman were discharged by 1920. Congress then amended the Naval Reserve Act of 1916 that allowed any U.S. citizen to serve to read any male citizen.


A group of three African American sailors on the deck of the submarine tender Bushnell (AS-2) during World War I (NH 56659).

Mess Attendants on board the submarine tender Bushnell (AS-2) during World War I (NH 56659).

1917-1918: African American Sailors in World War I:  Six thousand seven hundred and fifty African American sailors served in the U.S. Navy during the First World War (1.2% of the Navy’s total enlistment) but were only allowed to serve as coal heavers, messmen, stewards, and cooks. There were no African American officers. Only a small number of African Americans remained in the Navy during the interwar period.

 

 

 

 

1919: Racial Unrest outside of Naval Bases: As part of the larger anti-communist “Red Scare” riots, white sailors and Marines attacked members of Black communities in Washington, DC, Charleston, and Chicago. These incidents were part of a series of white supremacist, racial, anti-immigrant, and anti-socialist riots that took place that summer across the country.

4 August 1919: Navy suspends first enlistments of African Americans because officers believed that Filipinos made better messmen than Blacks. Those African American sailors who had joined before August 1919 were allowed to serve until their retirement.

1932: Recruitment of African Americans resumes: The changing status of the Philippines in the 1930s led the Navy to resume recruitment of African Americans. In 1932, there were only 441 Black sailors in the Navy—half of one percent of the force.

May 1940: Jim Crow Navy: When Germany invaded France in May 1940, only 4,007 out of the U.S. Navy’s 215,000 personnel were Black—2.3% of the force. Most of these sailors served as mess attendants, officers’ cooks, and stewards.

Fall 1941: Pressure to Integrate Navy Mounts: Black leaders had advocated for desegregation of the armed forces and racial equality in the military for some time and a number of them met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the fall of 1941. In response to pressure from the NAACP and other Black organizations, Roosevelt suggested placing Black musical ensembles on battleships to facilitate race relations among the crew. He also called for 5,000 Blacks to be recruited to serve on small harbor craft and at naval shore establishments in the Caribbean. Black leaders’ opposition to the Navy’s racial policies persuaded Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to select a committee composed of naval and Marine Corps officers, and Addison Walker, a civilian special assistant to Ralph Bard, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Knox asked them to determine if there was evidence of discrimination in the Navy and Marine Corps based on race, creed, color, or national origin, and then recommend changes. The committee concluded that allowing Blacks to serve in other billets would disrupt naval operations, and thus no policy changes were needed. Addison Walker disagreed, maintaining that Blacks could be assigned to small craft and trained by white officers. He argued that racial tension was an obstacle to naval efficiency. Consequently, the committee produced one report, but Walker wrote another. He also resigned his position as a special assistant to Bard.


Mess Attendant Second Class Doris Miller just after being presented with the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz on board the aircraft carrier Enterprise (CV-6) at Pearl Harbor, 27 May 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives (NHHC 80-G-408456).

Mess Attendant Second Class Doris Miller just after being presented with the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz on board Enterprise (CV-6) at Pearl Harbor, 27 May 1942. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives (NHHC 80-G-408456).

7 December 1941: Doris Miller was the first African American to be awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism on the battleship West Virginia (BB-48) during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He operated a machine gun on the ship and assisted the seriously wounded, including the captain, Mervyn Bennion. Miller was a mess attendant. Half of all Black sailors in World War II served as cooks, mess attendants, and stewards.

1 June 1942: Black Sailors enlisted into General Service: In January 1942, Secretary Frank Knox ordered the Navy’s General Board to devise a plan for the recruitment of 5,000 Blacks and to suggest a wider variety of duties. The General Board was responsible for studying all aspects of naval policy and making recommendations to the Secretary of the Navy based on its observations. After meeting, the board concluded that Blacks should be restricted to serving as messmen because there were few non-rated billets on patrol ships and integrating Blacks and whites in non-rated billets on larger ships would cause friction and lower efficiency. The board also concluded that “if restricting [Blacks] to the messman branch was discrimination, it was consistent with discriminatory practices against [Blacks] and citizens of Asian descent throughout the United States”[10].


USS Indianapolis (CA-35)

African American Mess Attendants from the Indianapolis (CA-35) in battle dress, July 1942. These men volunteered for additional duty as gunners. The ship's commanding officer, Captain E.W. Hanson, is the second officer from the right. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives (NHHC 80-G-21743).


The Board decided after at its second meeting in February 1942 to ask the Bureau of Navigation, responsible for personnel matters, to supply a list of stations and assignments for Blacks that included service units throughout the naval shore establishments, yard craft, and other small craft employed in Naval District local defenses, composite Marine battalions, and construction battalions. After some discussion, Roosevelt instructed Knox to implement the necessary measures. Consequently, the Navy announced on 7 April 1942 that Blacks would be enlisted in general service as well as the messman branch beginning 1 June 1942. On 1 February 1943, more than two thirds of the 26,909 African American sailors were messmen. The Navy’s decision not to make maximum use of all available resources 14 months into the war placed the burden of combat duties on white sailors.


A black-and-white photograph of a Buckley-class destroyer at sea.

Harmon (DE-678) off Mare Island, 13 November 1945. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives (NHHC 19-N-91491).

25 July 1943: The U.S. Navy launched their first ship named for an African-American: Harmon (DE-678), a Buckley-class destroyer. The ship was named in honor of Mess Attendant 1st Class Leonard Roy Harmon who posthumously received the Navy Cross for heroic actions on board San Francisco (CA-38) during the Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of 12-13 November 1942. During that action, Harmon evacuated and rendered care to the wounded. When a shell from the Japanese battleship Hiei exploded near him, he shielded another Sailor with his body. Shortly thereafter, he succumbed to his wounds.


Formal portrait of thirteen African American men in Navy uniform standing in rows on stairs.

The Golden Thirteen, the first African American U.S. Navy Officers, photographed 17 March 1944. They are (bottom row, left to right): Ensign James E. Hare, USNR; Ensign Samuel E. Barnes, USNR; Ensign George C. Cooper, USNR; Ensign William S. White, USNR; Ensign Dennis D. Nelson, USNR; (middle row, left to right): Ensign Graham E. Martin, USNR; Warrant Officer Charles B. Lear, USNR; Ensign Phillip G. Barnes, USNR; Ensign Reginald E. Goodwin, USNR; (top row, left to right): Ensign John W. Reagan, USNR; Ensign Jesse W. Arbor, USNR; Ensign Dalton L. Baugh, USNR; Ensign Frank E. Sublett, USNR (NH 95624).

17 March 1944: Golden 13: The first group of African Americans commissioned as officers (12 were commissioned ensigns and one as a warrant officer) in the United States Navy, known as “The Golden Thirteen”: Jesse Walter Arbor, Phillip G. Barnes, Dalton L. Baugh, Sr., George Clinton Cooper, Reginald E. Goodwin, James E. Hair, Charles Byrd Lear, Graham E. Martin, Dennis Denmark Nelson, John W. Reagan, Frank E. Sublett, Jr., and William Sylvester White. Only 64 African Americans received commissions as officers or warrant officers during World War II.


Photograph of three African American crew members looking at a ship while standing pier-side at mooring.

Three crew members of the destroyer escort Mason (DE-529) admire their ship while she lies moored at the Boston Navy Yard, Massachusetts, on 20 March 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives (NHHC 80-G-218861).

20 March 1944: Mason (DE-529): commissioned at the Boston Navy Yard. The destroyer escort, along with the submarine chaser PC-1264, were the only two World War II warships with predominantly Black crew members.

April 1944: James Forrestal becomes Secretary of the Navy and a Champion for the Cause of Black Sailors: After the death of Frank Knox, Forrestal was elevated to the senior civilian post. Forrestal told Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Ernest King  in the summer of 1944 that he believed that Black sailors were not “getting a square break” and proposed integrating the crews of auxiliaries, not to exceed 10 percent (the proportion of Blacks in the U.S. population at the time). Forrestal was an early proponent of desegregation and equal opportunity in the U.S. Navy.

 

17 July 1944: Port Chicago Naval Magazine Explosion and Protest: An explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, California, kills 320 munitions workers. Two thirds of those killed (220) were enlisted Black sailors (15% of all Black casualties in World War II). Two hundred and fifty-eight Black sailors later refused to carry out their duties at Mare Island in protest and 208 of this number received bad conduct charges. Fifty men—known as the Port Chicago 50—were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor. Forty-seven were released in January 1946 and the remaining three served additional months in prison. In World War II, 30 percent of Black sailors were unrated laborers.


Photograph of two African American women in uniform of the WAVES walking down stairs in front of exterior of a building.

Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills photographed after graduation from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (WR) at Northampton, Massachusetts, in December 1944.  Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives (NH 80-G-297449).

19 October 1944: Beginning of the WAVES: The Navy announced that Blacks would be admitted into the women’s naval reserve, also known as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) after constant pressure from the Black press, religious and civil rights organizations, Black sororities, and others. In December1944, the Navy commissioned Harriet Ida Pickens and Elizabeth Wills, and enlisted 70 Black women. After the war ended, the WAVES were demobilized.

December 1944: Guam Riot: Black sailors on Guam rioted in protest of oppressive conditions and violent racism on this important Pacific base. Forty-eight Black sailors were arrested and imprisoned.

12 February 1945: Release of “Guide to Command of Negro Naval Personnel”: This guide stated “The Navy accepts no theories of racial differences in inborn ability, but expects that every man wearing its uniform be trained and used in accordance with his maximum individual capacity determined on the basis of individual performance,” but recognized that lived experiences between Black and white sailors may be different. The guide concluded, “the effective administration and use of Negro personnel does call for special knowledge and techniques in some instances.”

2 March 1945: Ruth C. Issacs, Katherine Horton, and Inez Patterson became the first African American WAVES to enter the Hospital Corps School at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.


Three African American women in Navy uniform standing in a row in front of the exterior of a building with stairs.

Hospital Apprentices (Left to Right: Ruth C. Isaacs, Katherine Horton, and Inez Patterson) are the first African American Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVES) to enter the Hospital Corps School at the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives (NHHC 80-G-126507).


5 March 1945: Port Hueneme Hunger Strike: One thousand Black Seabees in the nearly all-Black 34th Construction Battalion at Port Hueneme ended a two-day hunger strike. The protest came about after the unit’s commanding officer refused to promote any African American to a chief petty officer billets despite that fact that many of the senior enlisted Black sailors in the battalion had served two years overseas and fully deserved advancement. The hunger strike enabled the men involved (estimated to at 1,000) to avoid arrest for mutiny while they publicized their grievances. No violence erupted and the hunger strike resulted in the dismissal of the commanding officer, and his executive officer.

5 March 1945: Phyllis Mae Dailey integrated the Navy Nurse Corps; three other Black women followed her: Edith Mazie DeVoe, Helen Fredericka Turner, and Eula Loucille Stimley.

August 1945: World War II Black Participation in the Navy: By Victory over Japan (V-J) Day, 5.5% of the Navy was African American—over 187,000 sailors. However, the Navy only commissioned 64 African Americans as officers. Most continued to serve in traditional ‘Jim Crow’ Navy roles such as cooks,  stewards, or unrated laborers, unloading ships and handling munitions [11].

15 March 1947: Ensign John Wesley Lee, Jr., became the first African-American with a commission in the regular Navy and served aboard Kearsarge (CV-33).

15 April 1947: Army-Navy Nurses Act (Public Law 36): This bill gave Navy nurses status in the service as regular commissioned officers and alleviated some of the major inequalities that existed between Navy nurses and regular commissioned officers.

30 July 1947: Women’s Armed Services Integration Act (Public Law 80-625): It allowed women to serve in the regular Army and Navy on a permanent basis, but excluded them from combat positions.


A photograph of a group of women in uniform standing together; in the foreground are a man in uniform and another woman in uniform turned to face the women.

Rear Admiral George L Russell, the Judge Advocate General of the Navy, swearing in the first six women in the Regular Navy while the Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan, far left, looks on. Captain Joy B. Hancock, Director of the Woman's Reserve, is to RADM Russell's left, 7 July 1948. The first six enlisted women are: (front row, left to right) Chief Yeoman Wilma J. Marchal, USN; Yeoman Second Class Edna E. Young, USN; and Hospital Corpsman First Class Ruth Flora, USN. Second Row (left to right): Aviation Storekeeper First Class Kay L. Langen, USN; Storekeeper Second Class Frances T. Devaney, USN; and Teleman Doris R. Robertson, USN (NH 106756).


July 1948: Chief Yeoman Edna Young became the first African American enlisted woman sworn into the regular Navy and its first female African American Chief Petty Officer.

30 July 1948: President Truman issues Executive Order 9981 to abolish discrimination based on “race, color, religion, or national origin” in the armed forces. For the Navy, however, it took many more years to see the promise of this order fulfilled. Throughout the early Cold War, the Navy’s recruiting policies coupled with institutional racism kept the participation of Blacks in the Navy low. In 1962, only 5% of the Navy was Black and just 0.2% of the officer corps. By comparison, Blacks represented 12.2% of the Army’s enlisted force and 3.2% of the officer corps. Even as late as 1971, Blacks still comprised just 0.7% of the Navy officer corps, and many Black sailors were still stuck in traditional Black ratings and faced racial discrimination in job assignments, housing, etc. When Truman’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces asked the Chief of Naval Personnel, Vice Admiral William Fechteler, why so few Blacks served in the Navy. He responded, “Blacks are not seafaring people.” The Bureau of Personnel claimed, “We make no special effort to get any race, creed, or color.” The Navy did not make an earnest effort to integrate until the 1970s.


A formal portrait of an African American man in white Navy uniform.

Midshipman Wesley A. Brown, circa 1949 (NH 91342).

3 June 1949: Ensign Wesley Brown became the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA). He was nominated for admission by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a New York congressman. Classes of 1950, 1960 and 1968 produced fewer than three dozen Black officers. In 1970, there were only 23 Blacks in a brigade of 4,300 midshipmen at USNA.


A photograph of an African American man in flight gear in the cockpit of a plane.

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, USN, in the cockpit of an F4U-4 Corsair fighter, circa 1950 (USN 1146845).

4 December 1950: Jesse L. Brown, America’s first Black combat naval aviator, was killed in action in Korea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1951: Lieutenant Commander Dennis Nelson, one of the Golden Thirteen and the only member to serve a full Navy career, published The Integration of the Negro into the Navy. Nelson’s book helped raise consciousness about the plight of the Black sailor. He argued that racial stereotypes were fictional. He claim that anyone with equal treatment and good leadership could perform any role in the U.S. Navy regardless of race.  The Navy did not fully embrace this thesis for many years.

February 1961: First African American to Command a Navy Ship: Samuel L Gravely Jr. assumed command of Theodore E. Chandler (DD-717) while the ship was in a year-long Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) overhaul. Thus, he became the first African American to command a Navy ship.

1963: Gesell Committee Report: To improve Black participation in the Armed Forces, President John F. Kennedy formed the Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunity in the Armed Forces and appointed Washington attorney Gerhard Gesell as its chair. The Gesell Committee found that the Navy was “falling behind the other services” in the area of equal opportunity and suggested “expanding the recruiting teams in Black communities, developing special training programs and methods for recruiting African Americans, and setting up recruiting stations on the campuses of Black colleges.”

1969: Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training (BOOST) established. It assisted educationally deprived sailors from all races in becoming officers. It was a two-year program designed to give underprivileged students more training in high school level math, science, and English. The program was later folded into the Seaman to Admiral Program in October 2012.

8-9 February 1970: Great Lakes Correctional Center riot: A dispute between Black and white prisoners erupted into a riot that resulted in 26 injuries (including five hospitalizations). The Navy investigation concluded that racial tension was the root cause. The Navy did not draw larger conclusions from the event because the riot involved prisoners, not mainstream sailors.


A White man in a white Navy uniform sits in the middle of a group of men, both White and Black, at a table.

Admiral Elmo Zumwalt speaks with the Human Relations Council at Fleet Activities, Yokosuka, Japan, 2 July 1971 (NH 97204).

15 May 1970: Admiral Elmo Zumwalt becomes Chief of Naval Operations (CNO): For the first time in its history, the Navy had a CNO strongly committed to equal opportunity in the fleet. Zumwalt instituted many changes designed to increase Black participation in all areas of the force, but especially in the officer corps and the senior enlisted ranks. By 1974, Blacks represented 7.4 percent of the force and 1.6% of the officer corps (up from 0.7 percent in 1971). In 1970, there were only 23 Blacks in a brigade of 4,300 midshipmen at U.S. Naval Academy. By 1976, that number had risen to 200.


A white man in khaki Navy uniform sits facing an African American man in khaki Navy uniform.

Lieutenant Commander William S. Norman and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt in June 1971. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives (USN 1148104).

November 1970: Commander William Norman appointed head of the CNO Advisory Committee on Race Relations and Minority Affairs. Commander Norman was the mastermind behind many of Admiral Zumwalt’s most successful equal opportunity programs, including those promulgated in Z- Gram 66 the following month.


Photograph of an African American man in formal Navy blue uniform with the American flag displayed in the background on the left.

Half-tone photograph taken from the memorial service pamphlet for Master Chief Carl Brashear held at the Chapel at Naval Amphibious Base, Little Creek, Virginia, on 29 July 2006 (NH 107665).

1970: Carl M. Brashear became the Navy’s First African American master diver: While serving on Hoist (ARS-40) in 1966 for the recovery of a nuclear weapon off Spain, Carl Brashear was badly injured in an accident. As a result, surgeons amputated his left leg below the knee. He refused to submit to the medical survey board’s attempt to retire him as unfit for duty. After demonstrating that he could still dive and perform his other duties, he was assigned to Harbor Clearance Unit 2, Naval Air Station Norfolk, Experimental Diving Unit, the submarine tender Hunley (AS-31), Recovery (ARS-43), Naval Safety Center, and Shore Intermediate Maintenance Activity Norfolk. In 1970, as an amputee, he qualified as the first African-American U.S. Navy Master Diver.

December 1970: Z Gram-66: Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt issued an All Navy (ALNAV) message establishing equal opportunity in the Navy. It stated “Every base, station and aircraft squadron commander and ship commanding officer shall appoint an aware minority group officer or senior petty officer as his special assistant for minority affairs. This officer or petty officer should have direct access to the commander/commanding officer and will. Be consulted on all matters involving minority personnel.” CNO Zumwalt also demanded that the special needs of minority service personnel be met at Navy Exchange, barber shops, and newsstands.


A black and white photograph of an African American man with glasses in formal Navy blue uniform.

Rear Admiral Samuel L. Gravely Jr. portrait photograph taken 29 March 1973 (NH 96773).

1971: Samuel L. Gravely Jr. became the first Black rear admiral. A graduate of the Midshipmen’s School at Columbia University, Gravely served in as the only Black officer on PC-1264 during World War II and as a communications officer on Iowa (BB-61) during the Korean War. During the Vietnam War, he commanded the destroyer Taussig (DD-746), which performed naval gunfire support missions during the conflict.

He became the first African American to command a Navy ship when he took command of Chandler (DD-717) in February 1961. He also commanded the radar picket destroyer escort Falgout (DE-324) and the guided missile frigate Jouett (DLG-29).

His flag commands included the Naval Communications Command, Cruiser-Destroyer Group Two, the Eleventh Naval District, Third Fleet, and the Defense Communications Agency. In 1976, while serving as commander of Third Fleet, Gravely was promoted to vice admiral. He was the first African American to command a numbered fleet.

February 1972: Defense Department Scales Down Draft, which leads to Increased Recruitment of African Americans into the Navy: Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird announced that no further draft orders would be issued, thereby compelling the Navy to begin recruiting large numbers of African Americans to fill its ranks. While the draft had been in effect, the Navy had no shortage of enlistees trying to avoid conscription into the Army and focused on recruiting only high test scorers—a policy that effectively excluded significant Black participation for much of the Cold War.

Of the 12,000 Blacks recruited after Navy leadership scaled back the draft, only a third had scores high enough to qualify for A School. Only 0.8% of new officer commissions in 1971 were Black (134 officers total). Many of these low scorers ended up working menial jobs for their entire enlistment—on the mess deck, as stewards, and on the deck force—and were not given access to the schools, education, and training required to enter many ratings and advance in rank.

7 August 1972: Z-gram 116: Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women: It established a task force to evaluate changes necessary in all laws, regulations and policies affecting the U.S. Navy “to eliminate any disadvantage to women resulting from either legal or attitudinal restrictions.” It paved the way for the assignment of women to ships at sea and opened up many previously unavailable career paths for women in the Navy.

12 October 1972: Race riot on the Kitty Hawk (CV-43) off the coast of Vietnam resulted in 47 injuries. This was the first racial incident in the Navy during the Vietnam period to receive widespread attention from Navy leaders. While Blacks represented just 7.2% of the crew, a third of these men came aboard within four months of the riot. Sixty-one percent of the Black sailors on the ship were Category III Armed Forces Qualification Test scores or below. Many of these low scores ended up working the most menial jobs on the ship—on the mess deck, as stewards, and on the deck force. This lead to resentment and accusations of institutional racism.

Commander Benjamin Cloud, the executive officer and a man of African American and Native American descent himself, convinced rioters to lay down their make-shift weapons and return to duty. This riot highlighted problems with institutional racism and racial unrest in the fleet. The event accelerated equal opportunity and affirmative action in the Navy.

16 October 1972: Hassayampa (AO-145) Riot: Eleven Black sailors, frustrated with conditions on this oiler rioted, injuring five white sailors. While smaller in scale, this riot demonstrated that racial unrest was not limited to Kitty Hawk (CV-43).

November 1972: Protest on Constellation (CVA-64): More than 100 Black sailors serving on board Constellation staged a sit-in in the mess area called the “Sidewalk Café” to air their complaints of unfair treatment due to their race. With the ship located pier-side in San Diego, the protest attracted heightened level of media attention. These reports led to Congressional hearings on racial unrest in the Navy. Southern Congressmen attempted to use the hearing, chaired by Congressman Floyd Verne Hicks of Washington State, to pin the blame for the current unrest on Zumwalt’s programs and not institutional racism endemic in the fleet. This put Zumwalt’s equal opportunity programs in jeopardy.

1973: Draft Ends: Department of Defense ended the draft and created an All-Volunteer Force. The draft had allowed the Air Force and Navy to focus on qualitative recruitment for much of the Cold War.This policy led to the recruitment of the best and the brightest (those youths wishing to avoid being drafted into the Army and Marines) while discriminating against youths from disadvantaged backgrounds (both Black and white), who often ended up fighting and dying in ground units in Vietnam. President Nixon ended the draft to alleviate this discrimination against working class Americans.

9 March 1978: Navy issues a new Navy Affirmative Action Plan (NAAP). The new NAAP institutionalized many of Admiral Zumwalt’s reforms, including programs to assist educationally deprived sailors to become officers; to waive test scores for sailors who met minimum qualifications for A Schools; to provide remedial education for sailors who wished to apply for A school; to establish Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) at five traditionally Black colleges; and to increase minority enrollment at the U.S. Naval Academy.


A drawing of an American American woman in uniform in portrait view with detail of hands folded in her lap.

Erick Marshall Murray, Captain Joan Bynum drawing, U.S. Navy, 1997 (NHHC 97-022-A).

1978: Joan Bynum, a Navy nurse, became the first African American woman to be promoted to Captain (O-6).

1980:

Midshipman Janie Mines graduated with the first class of women, thus becoming the first African American woman to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy.

Brenda “Raven” Robinson became the first Black female pilot. In 1978, Robinson was one of 10 women in the nation selected for naval flight training and one of just three to graduate from that class and only the 42nd woman in history to earn wings of gold.

 

 

 

28 May 1983: Centennial Seven: Pete Tzomes became the first African American to command a nuclear powered submarine,  Houston (SSN-713). Six African Americans followed him, and they were later called the “Centennial Seven” in recognition of their achievement as the only African Americans to command submarines within the first 100 years of the history of the submarine force. The other members included: Tony Watson, Will Bundy, Mel Williams, Bill Peterson, Cecil Haney, and Bruce Grooms.


Portrait of an African-American man in Navy blue dress uniform, with the American flag displayed in background.

Commander Donnie L. Cochran, USN, February 1992. Official U.S. Navy photograph, now in the collection of the National Archives (USN 330-CFD-DN-SC-92-06482).

November 1985: Commander Donnie L. Cochran became the first African-American to serve with the Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, the Blue Angels. He returned to the unit in 1994 to serve as the commanding officer for two years.


Portrait of an African American woman standing in a Navy flight suit.

1989: Matice Wright became the first African American female naval flight officer (NFO).


Five men sit in a row at a table in a conference room, all are in military uniform.

Vice Admiral J. Paul Reason, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Plans, Policy, and Operations sits with other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Operations Deputies Group. They include: LT. GEN. Ralph E. Eberhart, USAF; LT. GEN. Walter Kross, USAF; LT. GEN. Paul E. Blackwell, USA; and LT. GEN. Arthur C. Blades, USMC. Official Department of Defense photograph, now in the collection of the National Archives (OSD Package No. A07D-00345).

November 1996: Admiral J. Paul Reason became the first Black four-star admiral. He was subsequently assigned as Commander, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. Earlier in his career, he commandedCoontz (DDG-40), the nuclear cruiser Bainbridge (CGN-25), Cruiser-Destroyer Group 1, and Naval Surface Forces, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.


Thee African American women stand together in a group in front of the American flag, the women to the left and the right are in the formal Navy white uniform.

Admiral Michelle Howard, Vice Chief of Naval Operations (right), and Rear Admiral Annie B. Andrews, Commander, Navy Recruiting Command (NRC) (left), along with Rear Admiral Lillian E. Fishburne (center) stand on stage during the NRC’s Change of Command Ceremony at Naval Support Activity, Millington, Tennessee, September 4, 2015. The women were the first three African American women promoted to flag rank in the U.S. Navy (NHHC 150904-N-LL146-131).

1998: Lillian E. Fishburne, a communications officer, became the first African American woman to achieve flag rank when she was promoted to rear admiral (lower half). She was commissioned in 1973 after graduating from the Women Officers School in Newport, Rhode Island. In addition to communications, she served the recruiting and personnel field during her long and distinguished naval career.

 

12 March 1998: First Black Woman to Command a Navy Ship: Michelle Howard assumed command of Rushmore (LSD-47), thereby becoming the first African American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship.

 

 

 

2006: Fleet Master Chief April D. Beldo, an African American,  selected as the first female Command Master Chief (CMC) of Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Illinois. She later became the first African American CMC to be assigned to an aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson (CVN-70), in 2009; the first female and first African American Force Master Chief for Naval Education and Training Command in 2012; and the first female Manpower, Personnel, Training, Education (MPT&E) Force Master Chief in 2017.

27 August 2007: Vice Admiral Adam M. Robinson, Jr., became the first African American appointed as Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy. He was the 36th surgeon general of the Navy.

18 September 2008: USNS Carl Brashear (T-AKE 7) christened and launched at San Diego, CA. The ship is named for Master Chief Carl Brashear, the first African American Master Diver in the U.S. Navy and the first amputee to be recertified as a diver after amputation.

 

2010: Women integrated into submarine force: Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughead authorizes women (including Black women) to join the submarine force. He recognized that by not considering the Navy’s many qualified women, he was not making maximum use of all naval personnel for one of the Navy’s most difficult and elite communities. Moreover, a projected shortage of labor influenced his decision. Once again, contrary to expectation, integration proceeded with few problems. By 2019, there were 84 female officers and 219 enlisted women in the force.

2011: First All-Female Seabee Construction Team (part of Naval Mobile Construction Team Four) assigned to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Four of the eight Seabees on the team were African American.

24 January 2013: End of Ban on Women in Combat: The policy, which dates back to the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, that had excluded women from combat positions and was lifted in 2013 by unanimous recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Henceforth, women would be allowed to serve in front line combat units.


An African American woman in Navy dress blue uniform stands behind a podium with a sign for the Women's Memorial. In background, there is a display of algs.

Rear Admiral Michelle Howard, 2007 (NHHC 070420-N-3642E-037).

1 July 2014: Admiral Michelle J. Howard selected as the first Black Vice Chief of Naval Operations (VCNO). Earlier in her career, she was the first African American woman to command a Navy ship, the Rushmore I (LSD-47), the first U.S. Naval Academy female graduate to achieve flag rank, and the first Black woman to earn two and then three stars. She distinguished herself as the first Black woman and the third African American to achieve the rank of a four-star admiral.

 

 

January 2018: Steffanie Easter, an African American and an engineer with three decades of federal service, appointed as the first civilian Director of the Navy Staff in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

20 January 2020: Doris Miller (CVN-81) commissioned. It was the first carrier named after an African American naval hero and showed recognition by the Navy of the service and sacrifice of both minority and enlisted sailors of all ratings in the fleet.

31 July 2020: Lieutenant (junior grade) Madeline Swegle became the first Black woman selected as a Navy tactical fighter pilot.

Spring Semester 2021: Midshipman 1st Class Sydney Barber became the first African American female brigade commander at the United States Naval Academy.

John Sherwood, PhD, Fleet History Section, History and Archives Division,

Naval History and Heritage Command

 

 

 

Notes

[1]  For more information, read "America's First Black Sailors," The Sextant (NHHC blog), February 27, 2018.

[2]  History Resources. “Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation, 1775.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Accessed 20 April 2021.

[3]  Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park, National Park Service. “Thomas Jeremiah.” Accessed 20 April 2021.

[4] For full reference, see notes in Washington Navy Yard Station Log Entries, November 1822-December 1889.

[5] Abel Upshur, "Colored Persons in the Navy of the U.S.," Letter to the U.S. House of Representatives, 27th Congress, 2nd Session, Document No. 282, 5 August 1842.

[6]  Gideon Welles’ letter of 25 September 1861 authorizing “contrabands” for naval service can be found in  Series I, Volume IV, 692.

[7]  Researchers working in partnership with the National Park Service, including Dr. Regina Akers of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), have identified more than 18,000 men of African American descent who served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. The Civil War Soliders and Sailors Database maintained by the NPS is searchable online.

[8]  For more information about the history of the U.S. Naval Academy, see Jim Cheevers, edited by Sharon Kennedy, The United States Naval Academy, 1845–2020 (2020).

[9] Regina T. Akers, The Navy’s First Enlisted Women: Patriotic Pioneers (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, Department of the Navy, 2019). 

[10] Regina T. Akers,"Black Sailors enlisted into General Service, 1942" (Navy History and Heritage Command, 23 March 2017).

[11] Historical Section, Bureau of Naval Personnel, The Negro in the Navy: United States Naval Administrative History of World War II #84  (1947).

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Livingston, Rebecca. “Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines of the Spanish-American War: The Legacy of the USS Maine.Prologue Magazine 30, No. 1 (Spring 1998). 

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____. Breaking the Color Barrier: The U.S. Naval Academy's First Black Midshipmen and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: New York University Press, 2005.

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United States Navy. Celebrating Navy Women: Perseverance & Achievements [PDF]. Washington, DC: Defense Media, 2021. 

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Published: Thu May 06 15:09:09 EDT 2021