Reason Is Navy's First Black Four-Star Admiral
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 19, 1998 It took the Navy 135 years from the date the Union Navy began enlisting African Americans in 1861 to promote a black man to four-star admiral.
He's Adm. J. Paul Reason, 56, a 6-foot-5, Washingtonian whose credentials include serving as commander of a destroyer, a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser, and an aircraft carrier battle group. A former naval base commander, surface warfare commander and military aide to two presidents, he's now commander of the Atlantic Fleet in Norfolk, Va.
Reason today commands an armada of more than 190 warships, more than 1,300 aircraft and more than 120,000 people at 17 major naval bases. That's about half the entire U.S. Navy.
"The Union Navy began enlisting African Americans as early as September 1861, well before the Emancipation Proclamation," Reason said in a Feb. 5, 1997, speech here at the U.S. Navy Memorial in recognition of Black History Month.
"These African-Americans served as stewards, cooks and powder boys," Reason noted. "By 1862, following an observation of the performance of these stewards, cooks and powder boys, the ranks of regular seamen were opened to African Americans. Thirty-thousand African Americans -- 25 percent of the Union's naval enlisted strength -- served in the racially integrated Navy of the United States."
In addition to being the Navy's first African-American four-star admiral, Reason is part of a history-making trio of black four-star military officers. The three military departments for the first time have four-star African-American officers on active duty at the same time. The other two are Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson, commander of the Army Materiel Command in Alexandria, Va., and Gen. Lloyd W. "Fig" Newton, commander of the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.
Reason is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, while Newton was commissioned through college ROTC and Wilson, through Officer Candidate School after six years as an enlisted man.
"I totally attribute my success to those who have gone before me -- all minorities," Reason said. "People who have broken down barriers by showing others they're capable of doing the expected task, that they can perform and it has nothing to do with color of skin or ethnicity -- nothing to do with anything other than a person's capabilities."
Graduating in 1965, Reason said his interest in the Navy probably stems from his childhood loves -- fishing, crabbing, canoeing, rowing, swimming, frolicking on the beach or just sitting on a pier -- "anything having to do with water."
"Born and reared in Washington, D.C., I've always had some interchange with the Chesapeake Bay," he said. "As I came through high school, I looked very closely at affiliating with the Navy and letting them participate in my education."
He attended three colleges before being accepted at the Naval Academy.
Reason comes from a family of educators. His parents were both educators. His father was a professor of romance languages who later became director of university libraries at Howard University here for more than 40 years. His mother was a high school science biology and chemistry teacher and college professor.
Reason's sister specialized in international area studies and wrote travel handbooks for DoD personnel traveling to foreign countries in the 1950s and 1960s. "She died at age 50 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis," the admiral noted. "Her husband and two daughters are lawyers."
The admiral and his wife, Dianne, have two children: a daughter, Rebecca, an accountant, and a son, Lt. Joseph Paul Reason Jr., a 1990 Naval Academy graduate. Reason doesn't have any grandchildren, but said, "I'm ready!"
Reason credits Adm. Hyman Rickover, the "father" of the nuclear Navy, for helping him succeed. He said Rickover put the first nuclear-powered submarine to sea about 10 years earlier. The United States had also built the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, cruiser USS Long Beach and several nuclear submarines.
"I applied for a program involving very intense engineering for operation and maintenance of ships propelled by nuclear reactors," said Reason, who holds a master's degree in computer systems management. Rickover had developed that program.
Reason remembers well his testy first meeting with then-Capt. Rickover in 1964. Rickover was interviewing applicants for his propulsion school. He was intimidating, but Reason stood his ground.
Rickover challenged Reason noting he should have had better grades at the Naval Academy. "He said, 'You've had a lot of education, just about a straight-A student coming out of high school. How come you're not standing at the top of your class?'" Reason said. "I said others study harder than I do. I try to do other things as well as study.
"'Well, you may join the Navy nuclear power program if you improve your class standing by 20 numbers,'" he remembers Rickover saying.
Reason, in his last semester before graduation, told Rickover he couldn't promise or swear to raise his class standing because if he and everyone in front of him got straight-As, his relative position wouldn't change -- increasing his standing was beyond his control.
Rickover responded: "You've got to do it my way or you're out of here."
"He threw me out of his office and put me in a small room to think about it -- for hours!" Reason recalled. "Late that night I was called in by Adm. Rickover's deputy, who said, 'Have you had a chance to consider what the admiral wants you to do? He wants you to sign this statement: "I swear that I will increase my class standings 20 numbers before graduation."'"
Reason wrote on the paper, "I will do everything in my power to improve my class standing by 20 numbers," and signed it.
"This isn't acceptable," the deputy said. He had the secretary retype the original.
"I'm sorry, I will not sign this oath because it's not within my power to deliver," Reason told the deputy.
"He threw me out," Reason said.
At 6:45 the next morning, the list of those accepted for Rickover's nuclear program was posted. Reason was No. 3 on the list.
Reason speaks fondly of his professional and personal relationship with the late Adm. Mike Boorda, former chief of naval operations.
"Admiral Boorda was a very dear friend and an exceptionally fine naval officer," Reason said. "The Navy is better off for his having served with us for as long as he did."
The two met in 1981 when Reason went to Norfolk to take command of USS Bainbridge, a guided missile destroyer. Their mutual respect for each other's abilities and a lasting friendship blossomed during a voyage to West Africa and the Mediterranean.
"We got to know West Africa and each other quite well," Reason said. "A bond formed, first a professional bond, then a personal bond. He was the most capable naval officer I ever went to sea with. He knew how to do everything.
"But at the same time, I was a better engineer because I'd spent most of my time running propulsion plants in cruisers and aircraft carriers," Reason said. "With his operational expertise and my ability to solve engineering problems, it was a very professionally rewarding cruise to West Africa, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea."
Gone are the days when black sailors were only allowed to serve as stewards, cooks and powder boys.
"Service in the armed forces of the United States of America today is an equal opportunity for advancement," Reason said. "This is real equal opportunity. The Navy promotes people based on the score you make on an exam that everybody in your job title takes on the same day at the same time worldwide.
"You compete with people who went to the same schools, have gone through the same training and have the same manuals you have," he said. "So, if you're diligent, you can be promoted on your own merit. There are not a whole lot of places in this country, or anywhere else in the world, where you really have a visible merit promotion system. That's equal opportunity."
"There's always something exciting to do in the military," he said. "These opportunities don't exist in the little community where you grew up, whether it's a neighborhood in a big city or a small town. But when you affiliate with the armed forces of the United States, your horizons get broadened.
"Military service, for those who can adjust to the lifestyle, flourish in the lifestyle, enjoy the lifestyle, offers a wonderful band of opportunities," he said. "Those opportunities run the full gamut. It's not just financial stability, it's cultural exposure, international travel, doing things that the common man never gets the chance to do. Sometimes they're risky, but almost always exciting."
Reason said veterans can use their military experience to help others assimilate the same factors of life they have assimilated.
"When you've had a successful tour in the military, you've learned the value of education and training," he noted. "You've been taught how to do something. You've learned and put that learning into practice. So you know how to do something that's positive, fruitful and contributory to a team effort. By the same token, you know how to do a job, how to complete something you've started, how to be assigned a task and come to the logical conclusion so you know if it's done properly."
Veterans should share those factors with young African Americans in the communities to which they return, Reason said.
"They need to teach youngsters how to bring things to closure and how to deliver a product," the admiral said. "If you can do that, you can hold a job -- any job -- and become financially independent."
In 1976, during the Ford administration, Reason was selected to be the naval aide in the White House. He became President Ford's military aide shortly before Christmas 1976 and stayed on the job after President Jimmy Carter was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1977. He held the position until 1979 and then went back to sea as executive officer of the USS Mississippi.
Reason said thousands of crew members over the years have made him look good as a commander. "My payback is, I represent them, I represent sailors the best way I know how," he said. "My test for everything I do, for every decision I make is, is it good for sailors? If I can't prove it's good for sailors, we shouldn't be spending taxpayers' money. And we don't -- as long as it's my decision."