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African Americans in the Navy

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2001 – Blacks have served in the Navy since before there was a republic, but their contributions -- even their numbers -- aren't widely known.

Military records seem to indicate that few African Americans served in the Navy until World War II. DoD historians note that information about early African Americans in the Navy is skimpy because records were not kept by race until shortly before World War I.

"Negroes," as they were called back then, bravely manned gunboats during the Revolutionary War, fought valiantly during the War of 1812, performed heroically during the Civil War, and gallantly distinguished themselves during the Spanish- American War.

Evidence exists of African Americans serving on gunboats in the Continental Navy and in the navies of several states. It seems their patriotic service and heroism were ignored as soon as their services were no longer needed.

For example, "A Negro, Capt. Mark Starlin of the Virginia Navy," commanded the Patriot, but at war's end, despite an outstanding battle record, was re-enslaved by his old master. That account comes from the book "A Pictorial History of the Negro in America."

Many African Americans also fought in the War of 1812, hoping to become free afterward. American victories in the war are primarily naval ones. Naval records indicate about 16 percent of all enlisted sailors would have been black. What they can't show is the number of hopefuls who gained freedom.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, hundreds of newly freed slaves flocked to Union naval service. By war's end, blacks had served on almost every one of the Union's nearly 700 Navy vessels and six, records said, earned the Medal of Honor for gallantry in combat.

The Navy, however, seems to have overlooked many of its black sailors. For more than a century, Navy authorities estimated 10,000 blacks had served. Researchers of the Naval Historical Center, Howard University and National Park Service recently discovered new evidence that changes history: The real number is nearly twice as high.

In a ceremony at the Navy Memorial in Washington on Nov. 17, 2000, Navy officials added more than 8,000 neglected black sailors -- including more than a dozen women -- to its rolls of honored Civil War veterans. The researchers even proved the actual number of black Medal of Honor recipients was eight.

Naval historical records list three African American heroes during the 1860s. Robert Smalls (1839-1915), a slave-pilot aboard the Confederate steamer Planter of Charleston, S.C., hijacked the ship when the white crew had gone ashore. He and the Planter's slave crew delivered Planter to the Union in 1862. Smalls was lucky, because he was among a few African Americans who were recognized for their wartime exploits. He was appointed pilot of the USS Keokuk and eventually was promoted to captain.

Another African American, John Lawson, received the Medal of Honor for service on the USS Hartford during the Battle of Mobile Bay, Ala., in 1864. Post-war records note the outstanding service and patriotism of Frank Allen, who served on the USS Franklin in European waters in 1868.

Naval records indicate 15 African-American sailors aboard the USS Kearsarge when it engaged the CSS Alabama and sank the Confederate commerce raider off the coast of Cherbourg, France, in June 1864.

After the Civil War, African Americans served in unlimited roles among the Navy's enlisted ranks. However, that's when the custom started that "encouraged" blacks and other men of color to become officers' stewards and cooks.

The first decades of the 20th century brought increasing restrictions on the role of African Americans in society and in the Navy, according to naval historians. The enlisted rates remained open to all men, but African Americans were pushed into servant roles.

The Navy's racial segregation policies limited African Americans' participation in World War I and, after the war, barred black enlistments altogether from 1919 to 1932. The only black sailors in uniform during that period were the ones aboard in 1919 who were allowed to stay to retire.

Even with its distinct policy of racial segregation, the Navy permitted mixed racial crews. Records show that while African Americans saw limited naval action during World War I, one of them, Edward Donohue Pierson, earned the French Croix de Guerre for valor when he was wounded aboard the USS Mount Vernon when it was torpedoed off the coast of France.

In 1917, John Henry ("Dick") Turpin became the first African American chief petty officer, the Navy's highest enlisted rank at the time. Turpin enlisted in 1896 and survived the sinking of the battleship USS Maine in Havana harbor in February 1898. A chief gunner's mate, he was one of the blacks allowed to stay in 1919 and retired in 1925.

When African Americans were allowed into the Navy again in 1932, it was as stewards and mess attendants.

The Navy began rethinking its policies when the nation entered World War II in December 1941. Navy officials had to deal with a shortage of manpower and well- focused political activities. But thousands of patriotic black men also clamored to join, inspired by the heroics of black sailors like Doris "Dorie" Miller and Leonard Roy Harmon.

One of the first American heroes of the war, Miller had been a mess attendant on the battleship USS West Virginia during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Though he had no gunnery training, Miller took charge of an anti- aircraft machine gun when its crew was disabled. Popular legend has it that he shot down several of the 29 enemy planes claimed that day. Ship's officers also cited him for his part in rescuing sailors who had jumped or been thrown overboard. Miller received the Navy Cross.

Harmon, also a mess attendant, received the Navy Cross posthumously for valor during naval combat off Guadalcanal on Nov. 13, 1942.

The Navy would remain racially segregated in training and in most service units, but enlisted ratings opened to all qualified personnel in 1942.

The first African American officers in naval history were commissioned in 1944. The 12 commissioned officers and one warrant officer became known as the "Golden Thirteen."

President Truman ended formal racial segregation in the armed forces in 1948 by executive order. Opportunities gradually expanded for African Americans in the Navy and in American society from the late 1940s and the 1950s, a time marked by the Korean War and the Cold War.

During that period, Ensign Wesley A. Brown became the first African American graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Md. Ensign Jesse L. Brown became the first African American naval aviator and died in action during the Korean War.

Major changes in the Navy's approach to African Americans came between 1965 to 1972 during the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle. Samuel L. Gravely Jr. was promoted to rear admiral in July 1971, making him the first African American to reach flag rank. He retired as a vice admiral on Aug. 1, 1980.

Adm. J. Paul Reason became the Navy's first African American four-star admiral on Nov. 15, 1996. He served as commander of the Atlantic Fleet from December 1996 to October 1999 and retired in November 1999.

Rear Adm. Lillian E. Fishburne became the first African American woman Navy flag officer in February 1998. Her most recent assignment was deputy director and fleet liaison, Information Space Warfare Command and Control at the Pentagon. She's scheduled to retire in February 2001.

As of Feb. 1, 2001, there are eight African American male admirals and one woman admiral.

As of Dec. 31, 2000, there were 115 male captains and 22 female captains. On the enlisted side, there are 268 male master chiefs and 15 female master chiefs.

Up and coming African American naval officers include Vice Adm. Edward Moore Jr., commander of the naval surface forces in the Pacific; Rear Adm. David L. Brewer, deputy chief of naval education and training; and Rear Adm. Larry L. Poe, a defense attache in France.

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