Historical Project Documents Navy Diversity
By Christen N. McCluney
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 2010 African-Americans have a long legacy in the military that began with the Revolutionary War and has continued to this day.
To highlight this legacy, the Naval History and Heritage Command is working on a project documenting the history of diversity in the Navy from 1775 to the present through a variety of products including oral histories, narratives, chronology, photographs and a book.
The diversity project covers not only African-Americans but also women, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asians. It also looks at religious diversity as well.
"African-Americans have always desired to support the nation in hopes that a better society would emerge for them," said Regina Akers, a historian at the command and an expert on African-American history, during a Feb. 17 interview on the Pentagon Channel podcast “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military.”
Diversity is a both strength and a strategic imperative for the Navy and its mission, Akers said, and the project is aligned with that to tell the story of how people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds came to serve in the U.S. Navy and how their roles have changed over time.
"Many times, I've observed that young Americans will select a hero who is an athlete or business person and they don't consider the outstanding men and women that served in the military," she said. “There is much to learn from their experiences."
For example, she said, Navy Vice Adm. Samuel L. Gravely Jr. was the first African-American to be promoted to admiral and to command a war ship. During his time in the military from the 1940s to the 1980s, he faced many challenges. Early in his career -- when his duties were not equal to his qualifications -- he did not let that deter him, Akers said, believing every job was an opportunity to learn.
Gravely used his extra time to take correspondence courses, and when the opportunity for a better assignment arose, his test results, performance evaluations and experience made him one of the most qualified applicants.
Gravely’s formula for success was “education plus motivation plus preservation,” Akers said, and these and other factors helped him excel in his Navy career.
The oral history portion of the project helps to bring life to the subject matter, Akers said. "Oral history is critical," she said. A written report, she explained, usually tells what happened. But an oral history explains how it happened and provides perspective.
Society is moving away from paper-based communication, Akers noted, so this historical research is important for the future.
"In the past, letters and other correspondence were able to capture history," she said. "With technology today, one writes e-mails that are likely to be deleted. The research needs to continue so that we can understand what blacks and other minorities have done and are doing in uniform."
One of the biggest challenges Akers said she has experienced is that many veterans think they don't have a story worth telling.
"Some don't understand the significance of their experiences, and you have to help them appreciate them and why someone would be interested,” she said. But once they do participate, she added, many find it to be cathartic.
"It can bring healing and peace to a part of life that was unsettled for them, she said, “and they are honored that their history will be a part of the government’s official archives."
“Heroic,” “determined” and “sacrificial” are three words that Akers said describe the legacy of African-Americans in the armed forces. More information and accounts of the past, she said, will add to the body of knowledge.
"Today's military is much more diverse than it has ever been," Akers said. "But it doesn't mean that racial equality and gender equality has necessarily been achieved. All the missing pages relating to minorities in the history of the Navy and of the United States have not been filled, so the study needs to continue so we can learn more and better understand their experiences."
(Christen N. McCluney works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)