Throughout the early history of the United States the Navy enlisted African Americans for general service. From 1893 until the end of the First World War, they could only join the Navy as Messmen and Steward and never as officers. However between 1919 and 1932, they were barred entirely from service. During World War II, the need for manpower increased and the Navy slowly opened up the jobs available to African Americans.
By 1944, African Americans were selected to attend Officer Candidate School at Great Lakes, Ill. Although all sixteen members of the class passed the course, only twelve were commissioned in March 1944. They were John Walter Reagan, Jesse Walter Arbor, Dalton Louis Baugh, Sr., Frank Ellis Sublett, Graham Edward Martin, Phillip George Barnes, Reginald E. Goodwin, James Edward Hair, Samuel Edward Barnes, George Clinton Cooper, William S. White, and Dennis Denmark Nelson were commissioned as Ensigns. Charles Byrd Lear was appointed as a Warrant Officer.