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First Black Admiral in Navy - History
An Introduction to Super Stars
The History of The Navy&rsquos Black Admirals
In 1971, Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. became the first African American promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral. Since that time, 48 other African Americans have reached this rank including Lillian Fishburne selected in 1998. Presently, there are 15 active duty Admirals and 34 retired.
Samuel L. Gravely
Born 1922, Richmond, VA
Promoted to Rear Admiral in 1971
Promoted to Vice Admiral in 1976
Vice Admiral Samuel Lee Gravely was born in Richmond, VA in 1922, enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves in 1942, and was commissioned as an Ensign in 1944. In 1971, he was selected for promotion to Rear Admiral, becoming the first Black naval officer in the nation's history to earn this recognition. He was later promoted to Vice Admiral in the summer of 1976 on board the USS JOUETT, one of the Navy's most sophisticated guided missile cruisers and one of the ships he had previously Commanded.
Vice Admiral Gravely's awards include the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit Medal with one gold Star in lieu of a second award, Bronze Star Medal, and the Navy Commendation Medal.
These 49 Admirals exemplify the progress Blacks have made in the Navy, which until late 1940&rsquos maintained strict segregation policies.
In 1940, there were 4,000 African-American enlisted sailors in the Navy. They were limited to serving as cooks. The first Black officers were commissioned in 1944 and were nicknamed &ldquoThe Golden 13&rdquo.
In 1949, Wesley A. Brown, a Maryland native, became the first Black to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. Several of the Admirals featured in this exhibit followed in his footsteps, and received their commissions from the Academy including:
- Rear Admiral Lawrence C. Chambers, Class of 1952
- Rear Admiral William E. Powell, Class of 1959
- Admiral J. Paul Reason, Class of 1965
- Rear Admiral Anthony J. Watson, Class of 1970
- Vice Admiral Andy Winns, Class of 1978
- Vice Admiral Melvin G. Williams, Class of 1978
- Vice Admiral Derwood C. Curtis, Class of 1976
- Rear Admiral Arthur J. Johnson, Class of 1979
- Rear Admiral Victor G. Guillory, Class of 1978
- Admiral Cecil D. Haney, Class of 1978
- Rear Admiral Julius S. Caesar, Class of 1977
- Vice Admiral Bruce E. Grooms, Class of 1980
- Admiral Michelle J. Howard, Class of 1982
- Rear Admiral Earl L. Gay, Class of 1980
- Rear Admiral Charles K. Carodine, Class of 1982
- Rear Admiral Jesse A. Wilson, Class of 1986
Lillian E. Fishburne
Patuxent River, MD
Promoted to Rear Admiral in 1998
Commanding Officer of the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station, Key West, Florida. Commander of the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station in Wahiawa, Hawaii.
Rear Admiral Fishburne was promoted to Flag rank in February 1998, becoming the Navy's nineteenth African-American and the nation's first African-American woman to earn this recognition. Her numerous military awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal, and the Legion of Merit Medal.
Today, there are 78,000 enlisted African-American men and women and an additional 3,000 African-American officers serving in the Navy.
"The success of these admirals, along with achievements of all Black Navy Personnel, attests to an impressive record of perseverance. This is their story, a living lesson of personal triumph, and a source of national pride."
Barry C. Black
Born 1948, Baltimore, MD
Promoted to Rear Admiral in 1998
Barry Black was promoted to rank of Rear Admiral in February 1998 and became the Navy's twentieth African-American to reach this top leadership position. In August 2000, he was selected to serve ad the Chief of Chaplains responsible for the religious needs of the Navy's 384,000 Sailors and their families.
His numerous military decorations include the Legion of Merit Medal, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal (two awards).
This introduction to the United States Navy&rsquos Black admirals is accomplished using color portraits and bibliographical profiles highlighting their brilliant naval careers.
The forty-nine 24X30 inch handsomely framed pictures also show a color photograph of the aircraft the admiral flew or the ship they commanded.
The exhibit highlights the role Black Americans played in defending our nation and serves as a source of inspiration to all young people that the American dream, of hard work yielding great rewards, can still come true.
The exhibit is supported by:
&bull Dynamic documentary videos
&bull A color slide show
&bull Handouts for the audience including an exhibit guide and lists of related books and Web sites.
The size of each of the 49 framed portraits in the Navy Admirals exhibit, "Super Stars: The Navy's Black Admirals:
&bull Vice Admiral Sam Gravely The Navy&rsquos First Black Admiral.
&bull Rear Admiral Barry Black Called to Serve The Navy&rsquos First Black Chief of Chaplains.
&bull Rear Admiral Lillian Fishburne Victory is Mine The Navy&rsquos First Black Woman Admiral.
&bull Rear Admiral Ben Hacker The Golden Wings of Naval Aviation.
&bull Seaworthy Admirals: Distinguished Black Graduates of the U. S. Naval Academy.
&bull Admiral Michelle Howard Leading Lady The Navy's First 4-Star Admiral.
Promoted to 4-Star Admiral in 2014
Admiral Howard graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1982. She took command of USS Rushmore (LSD 47) on March 12, 1999, becoming the first African American woman to command a ship in the U.S. Navy.
In 2014, she was promoted to 4-Star Admiral, the first woman in the U.S. Navy to attain this rank. She was also selected to serve in the U.S. Navy's second highest leadership position as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations.
&bull Wesley Brown The First Black Graduate of the U S Naval Academy.
Book Club Topics for Wesley Brown include:
Commander Jackson shares his first-hand knowledge of some of the nation's most dynamic leaders when he facilitates discussions on books written by Black Navy Admirals.
From the Hood to The Hill: A Story of Overcoming by Barry C. Black, Retired Navy Admiral and Chaplain of the U.S. Senate
Trailblazer: The U.S. Navy's First Black Admiral by Sam Gravely Jr., Retired Navy Admiral, with historian Paul Stillwell
Museum Orientation Lectures
Commander Jackson provides an insider's perspective during his orientation lectures so visitors can get the most from their museum tours.
This exhibit profiles the lives of Midshipman Wesley Brown, Admirals Paul Reason and Michelle Howard, and astronaut and Marine Corps General Charles Bolden.
This exhibit features military trailblazers and Black Admiral and general officers.
The Commanders: Admirals and Generals in the United States Military, 1940–
On October 25, 1940, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was appointed Brigadier General in the United States Army by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, becoming the first African American general in the history of the United States Military. Since then nearly 400 other African American women and men have been appointed to that rank. The highest rank in the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps is General (four star), followed by Lieutenant General (three star), Major General (two star) and Brigadier General (one star). Five men have held the rank of General of the Army (five star), George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Henry H. Arnold, who later became the only five-star general in the Air Force. The five-star rank is no longer attainable. In the Navy the top rank is “Admiral” (four star) followed by Vice Admiral (three star), and Rear Admiral (two star). In the Navy the rank of Fleet Admiral is rarely given. Only four men, William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William F. Halsey, Jr. have been named Fleet Admiral.
Listed below are African American men and women who have attained the rank of Admiral in the Navy or General in the Army or Air Force. No African American has yet attained the rank of General in the Marine Corps.
Additionally there are profiles of other significant African generals and admirals along with the black generals and admirals who have served in the military in other nations. As with all BlackPast.org compilations, this is a work in progress. If there are other commanders who have achieved the rank of admiral or general and you feel should be listed here, please send their names to [email protected], or better still volunteer to write entries on them.
Four Star Navy Admirals along with the year of their appointment
Four Star Army Generals along with the year of their appointment
Four Star Air Force Generals along with the year of their appointment
There are no Four Star Marine Generals: Here are Other Marine Generals
The State Adjutant General (TAG) is the de facto commander of a state’s military forces including the Army National Guard, Air Force National Guard, the naval militia, and all other state defense forces in peacetime. The Adjutant General is usually appointed by the governor of a state. Listed below are the individuals who have served in this capacity along with their respective states and the dates of their appointment.
James Glasgow Farragut was born in 1801 to George Farragut (born Jorge Farragut Mesquida, 1755–1817), a Spanish Balearic merchant captain from the Mediterranean island of Menorca, and his wife Elizabeth (née Shine, 1765–1808), of North Carolina Scotch-Irish American descent, at Lowe's Ferry on the Holston River in Tennessee.  It was a few miles southeast of Campbell's Station, near Knoxville. 
After serving in the Spanish merchant marine, George Farragut arrived in North America in 1766 and served as a naval officer during the American Revolutionary War, first with the South Carolina Navy then the Continental Naval forces. George and Elizabeth had moved west to Tennessee after his service in the Revolution, where he operated Lowe's Ferry and served as a cavalry officer in the Tennessee militia.  In 1805, George accepted a position at the U.S. port of New Orleans. He traveled there first and his family followed, in a 1,700-mile (2,700 km) flatboat adventure aided by hired rivermen, the then four-year-old James's first voyage. The family was still living in New Orleans when Elizabeth died of yellow fever. George Farragut made plans to place the young children with friends and family who could better care for them.
In 1808, after his mother's death, James agreed to live with naval officer David Porter, whose father had served with George Farragut during the Revolution.  In 1812, he adopted the name "David" in honor of his foster father, with whom he went to sea late in 1810. David Farragut grew up in a naval family, as the foster brother of future Civil War admiral, David Dixon Porter, and Commodore William D. Porter.
Farragut's naval career began as a midshipman when he was nine years old, and continued for 60 years until his death at the age of 69. This included service in several wars, most notably during the American Civil War, where he gained fame for winning several decisive naval battles.
War of 1812 Edit
Through the influence of his foster father, Farragut was commissioned a midshipman in the United States Navy on December 17, 1810, at the age of nine.  [note 1] A prize master by the age of 12, Farragut fought in the War of 1812, serving under Captain Porter, his foster father. While serving aboard USS Essex, Farragut participated in the capture of HMS Alert on August 13, 1812,   then helped to establish America's first naval base and colony in the Pacific, named Fort Madison, during the ill-fated Nuku Hiva Campaign in the Marquesas Islands. At the same time, the Americans battled the hostile tribes on the islands with the help of their Te I'i allies.
Farragut was 12 years old when, during the War of 1812, he was given the assignment to bring a ship captured by the Essex safely to port.  He was wounded and captured while serving on the Essex during the engagement at Valparaíso Bay, Chile, against the British on March 28, 1814. 
West Indies Edit
Farragut was promoted to lieutenant in 1822, during the operations against West Indian pirates. In 1824, he was placed in command of USS Ferret, which was his first command of a U.S. naval vessel.  He served in the Mosquito Fleet, a fleet of ships fitted out to fight pirates in the Caribbean Sea. After learning his old captain, Commodore Porter, would be commander of the fleet, he asked for, and received, orders to serve aboard Greyhound, one of the smaller vessels, commanded by John Porter, brother of David Porter. On February 14, 1823, the fleet set sail for the West Indies where, for the next six months, they would drive the pirates off the sea, and rout them from their hiding places in among the islands.  He was executive officer aboard the Experiment during its campaign in the West Indies fighting pirates. 
Mexican–American War Edit
In 1847, Farragut, now a commander, took command of the sloop-of-war USS Saratoga when she was recommissioned at Norfolk Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia. Assigned to the Home Squadron for service in the Mexican–American War, Saratoga departed Norfolk on March 29, 1847, bound for the Gulf of Mexico under Farragut's command and upon arriving off Veracruz, Mexico, on April 26, 1847, reported to the squadron's commander, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, for duty. On April 29, Perry ordered Farragut to sail Saratoga 150 nautical miles (173 miles 278 km) to the north to blockade Tuxpan, where she operated from April 30 to July 12 before Farragut returned to Veracruz. About two weeks later, Farragut began a round-trip voyage to carry dispatches to Tabasco, returning to Veracruz on August 11, 1847. On September 1, 1847, Farragut and Saratoga returned to blockade duty off Tuxpan, remaining there for two months despite a yellow fever outbreak on board. Farragut then brought the ship back to Veracruz and, after a month there, got underway for the Pensacola Navy Yard in Pensacola, Florida, where Saratoga arrived on January 6, 1848, disembarked all of her seriously sick patients at the base hospital, and replenished her stores. On January 31, 1848, Farragut took the ship out of Pensacola bound for New York City, arriving there on February 19. Saratoga was decommissioned there on February 26, 1848. 
Mare Island Navy Yard Edit
In 1853, Secretary of the Navy James C. Dobbin selected Commander David G. Farragut to create Mare Island Navy Yard near San Francisco in San Pablo Bay. In August 1854, Farragut was called to Washington from his post as assistant inspector of ordnance at Norfolk, Virginia. President Franklin Pierce congratulated Farragut on his naval career and the task he was to undertake. On September 16, 1854, Commander Farragut arrived to oversee the building of the Mare Island Navy Yard at Vallejo, California, which became the port for ship repairs on the West Coast. Captain Farragut commissioned Mare Island on July 16, 1858. Farragut returned to a hero's welcome at Mare Island on August 11, 1869.  
Civil War service Edit
Though living in Norfolk, Virginia, prior to the American Civil War, Farragut made it clear to all who knew him that he regarded secession as treason. Just before the war's outbreak, Farragut moved with his Virginian-born wife to Hastings-on-Hudson, a small town just outside New York City.  
He offered his services to the Union, and was initially given a seat on the Naval Retirement Board. Offered a command by his foster brother, David Dixon Porter, for a special assignment, he hesitated upon learning the target might be Norfolk. As he had friends and relatives living there, he was relieved to learn the target was changed to his former childhood home of New Orleans. The navy had some doubts about Farragut's loyalty to the Union because of his Southern birth as well as that of his wife. Porter argued on his behalf, and Farragut was accepted for the major role of attacking New Orleans. 
Farragut was appointed under secret instructions on February 3, 1862, to command the Gulf Blockading Squadron, sailing from Hampton Roads on the screw steamer USS Hartford, bearing 25 guns, which he made his flagship, accompanied by a fleet of 17 ships. He reached the mouth of the Mississippi River, near Confederate forts St. Philip and Jackson, situated opposite one another along the banks of the river, with a combined armament of more than 100 heavy guns and a complement of 700 men. Now aware of Farragut's approach, the Confederates had amassed a fleet of 16 gunboats just outside New Orleans. 
On April 18, Farragut ordered the mortar boats, under the command of Porter, to commence bombardment on the two forts, inflicting considerable damage, but not enough to compel the Confederates to surrender. After two days of heavy bombardment, Farragut ran past forts Jackson and St. Philip and the Chalmette batteries to take the city and port of New Orleans on April 29, a decisive event in the war. 
Congress honored him by creating the rank of rear admiral on July 16, 1862, a rank never before used in the U.S. Navy. Before this time, the American Navy had resisted the rank of admiral, preferring the term "flag officer", to distinguish the rank from the traditions of the European navies. Farragut was promoted to rear admiral along with 13 other officers – three others on the active list and ten on the retired list.
Later that year, Farragut passed the batteries defending Vicksburg, Mississippi, but had no success there. A makeshift Confederate ironclad forced his flotilla of 38 ships to withdraw in July 1862.
While an aggressive commander, Farragut was not always cooperative. At the siege of Port Hudson, the plan was that Farragut's flotilla would pass by the guns of the Confederate stronghold with the help of a diversionary land attack by the Army of the Gulf, commanded by General Nathaniel Banks, to commence at 8:00 a.m. on March 15, 1863. Farragut unilaterally decided to move the timetable up to 9:00 p.m. on March 14, and initiated his run past the guns before Union ground forces were in position. The consequently uncoordinated attack allowed the Confederates to concentrate on Farragut's flotilla and inflict heavy damage to his warships.
Farragut's flotilla was forced to retreat with only two ships able to pass the heavy cannon of the Confederate bastion. After surviving the gauntlet, Farragut played no further part in the battle for Port Hudson, and General Banks was left to continue the siege without the advantage of naval support. The Union Army made two major attacks on the fort both were repulsed with heavy losses. Farragut's flotilla was splintered, yet was able to blockade the mouth of the Red River with the two remaining warships he could not efficiently patrol the section of the Mississippi between Port Hudson and Vicksburg. Farragut's decision proved costly to the Union Navy and the Union Army, which suffered its highest casualty rate of the war at Port Hudson.
Vicksburg surrendered on July 4, 1863, leaving Port Hudson as the last remaining Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. General Banks accepted the surrender of the Confederate garrison at Port Hudson on July 9, ending the longest siege in U.S. military history. Control of the Mississippi River was the centerpiece of the Union strategy to win the war, and, with the surrender of Port Hudson, the Confederacy was now cut in two.
On August 5, 1864, Farragut won a great victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay. Mobile, Alabama, was then the Confederacy's last major open port on the Gulf of Mexico. The bay was heavily mined (tethered naval mines were then known as "torpedoes").  Farragut ordered his fleet to charge the bay. When the monitor USS Tecumseh struck a mine and sank, the others began to pull back.
From his high perch, where he was lashed to the rigging of his flagship, USS Hartford, Farragut could see the ships pulling back. "What's the trouble?" he shouted through a trumpet to USS Brooklyn. "Torpedoes", was the shouted reply. "Damn the torpedoes.", said Farragut, "Four bells, Captain Drayton, go ahead. Jouett, full speed."   The bulk of the fleet succeeded in entering the bay. Farragut triumphed over the opposition of heavy batteries in Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines to defeat the squadron of Admiral Franklin Buchanan.
On December 21, 1864, Lincoln promoted Farragut to vice admiral. This promotion made him the senior ranking officer in the United States Navy.
Post-Civil War service Edit
After the Civil War, Farragut was elected a companion of the first class of the New York Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States on March 18, 1866, and assigned insignia number 231. He served as the commander of the Commandery of New York from May 1866 until his death.
Farragut was promoted to full admiral on July 25, 1866, becoming the first U.S. Navy officer to hold that rank. 
His last active service was in command of the European Squadron, from 1867 to 1868, with the screw frigate USS Franklin as his flagship. Farragut remained on active duty for life, an honor accorded to only seven other U.S. Navy officers after the Civil War. 
Farragut died from a heart attack at the age of 69 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, while on vacation in the late summer of 1870. He had served almost sixty years in the navy. He is interred at Woodlawn Cemetery, in The Bronx, New York City.  His gravesite is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as is Woodlawn Cemetery itself.
After appointment and an initial cruise as acting lieutenant commanding USS Ferret, Farragut married Susan Caroline Marchant on September 2, 1824.  After years of ill-health, Susan Farragut died on December 27, 1840. Farragut was noted for his kindly treatment of his wife during her illness. 
After the death of his first wife, Farragut married Virginia Dorcas Loyall, on December 26, 1843, with whom he had one surviving son, named Loyall Farragut, born October 12, 1844. Loyall Farragut graduated from West Point in 1868, and served as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army before resigning in 1872. He spent most of the remainder of his career as an executive with the Central Railroad Company of New Jersey. He was an hereditary member of the Military Society of the War of 1812 and a companion of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States. Loyall died on October 1, 1916, as noted on one side of the family monument which he and his mother erected to the memory of his father in Woodlawn Cemetery. 
Farragut had a brother named William A. C. Farragut. William was also in the Navy but had a far less distinguished career. He was warranted as a midshipman on 16 January 1809 (a year before David Farragut would begin his career) and was promoted to lieutenant on 9 December 1814. William remained at that rank until he was transferred to the Reserve List on 15 December 1855. He died on 20 December 1859.
David Farragut was initiated to the Scottish Rite Masonry.   
- December 17, 1810, appointed midshipman at age 9.
- 1812, assigned to the USS Essex.
- 1815–1817, served in the Mediterranean Sea aboard the Independence and the Macedonian.
- 1818, studied ashore for nine months at Tunis.
- 1819, served as a lieutenant on the USS Shark.
- 1823, placed in command of the USS Ferret.
- January 10, 1825, promoted to lieutenant on the frigate Brandywine.
- 1826–1838, served in subordinate capacities on various vessels.
- 1838, placed in command of the sloop Erie.
- September 8, 1841, promoted to the rank of commander. , commanded the sloop of war Saratoga.
- 1848–1853, duty at Norfolk, Navy Yard in Virginia as Assistant Inspector of Ordinance.
- September 1852 – August 1853, assigned to superintend the testing of the endurance of naval gun batteries at Old Point Comfort at Fort Monroe in Virginia. 
- 1853–1854, duty at Washington, D.C.
- September 14, 1855, promoted to the rank of captain.
- 1854–1858, duty establishing Mare Island Navy Yard at San Francisco Bay.
- 1858–1859, commander of the sloop of war USS Brooklyn.
- 1860–1861, stationed at Norfolk Navy Yard.
- January 13, 1862, promoted to the rank of Flag Officer (equivalent to commodore).
- January 1862, commanded USS Hartford and the West Gulf blockading squadron of 17 vessels.
- April 1862, took command of occupied New Orleans.
- June 23, 1862, wounded near Vicksburg, Mississippi.
- July 16, 1862, promoted to rear admiral.
- March 15, 1863, commanded naval forces at the Battle of Port Hudson.
- May 1863, commanded USS Monongahela.
- May 1863, commanded the USS Pensacola.
- July 1863, commanded USS Tennessee.
- August 5, 1864, Battle of Mobile Bay.
- September 5, 1864, offered command of the North Atlantic Blocking Squadron, but he declined because of family issues.
- December 21, 1864, promoted to vice admiral.
- April 1865, pallbearer for the funeral of Abraham Lincoln.
- July 25, 1866, promoted to admiral.
- June 1867–1868, commanded the European Squadron with USS Franklin as his flagship.
- August 14, 1870, died at Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine.
The area formerly known as Campbell's Station, Tennessee, only a few miles from Admiral Farragut's birthplace, was renamed as the town of Farragut in his honor.
Farragut Square in Washington, D.C. is named in his honor. A statue of him, named Admiral David G. Farragut, is in the center of Farragut Square. Two Washington Metro stations, Farragut West and Farragut North, also share his name. There is a statue of Admiral Farragut at the South Boston Marine Park adjacent to Castle Island. There is also an outdoor sculpture of him in Madison Square Park in Manhattan, New York City, where the Farragut section of the Borough of Brooklyn,  including Farragut Road, is named for him. 
Farragut Naval Training Station, located in Northern Idaho on Lake Pend Oreille, was a WWII naval training center, the second largest in the world at the time with over 293,000 sailors receiving basic training there. In 1966, the state of Idaho turned the land into Farragut State Park.
Two separate classes of U.S. Navy destroyers have been named for Farragut: the Farragut class of 1934 and the Farragut class of 1958. Several individual U.S. Navy ships also have been named USS Farragut in his honor.
Admiral Farragut Academy, named after Admiral David G. Farragut, was founded in 1933 as an all-boys military boarding high school. Today, the Academy is a college-prep, private school which serves students in PreK-12th grade and is located in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Upper School, which starts in 8th grade, is also known worldwide for its Boarding program and Navy Junior ROTC military structure. Farragut also offers other signature academic programs: Aviation, Scuba, Marine Science, Engineering, Sailing, and more.
Few naval officers in American history have been honored on a U.S. postage stamp, but David Farragut has been so honored more than once. The first postage stamp (at left) to honor Farragut was the 1-dollar black issue of 1903. The Navy Issue of 1937 includes (among five in a series) a 3-cent purple stamp which depicts Admirals David Farragut (left) and David Porter, with a warship under sail displayed at center. The most recent postage issue honoring Farragut was released from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on June 29, 1995.  
The Science Fiction Venturer Twelve series features an Admiral Farragut in command of Earth's Space Navy in the far future.
How the U.S. Navy’s First Black Officers Helped Reshape the American Military
T his year marks the 75th anniversary of the United States victory over Germany and Japan in World War II, and the celebrations, the movies and the memorials will focus on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. But one of the most consequential battles of the war did not take place overseas. It was waged about 35 miles north of Chicago&mdashand its outcome forever changed the U.S. Navy.
In early 1944, as the United States prepared for the invasion of France, 16 African American sailors, summoned from shore installations and training schools across the country, were brought to the main office at Great Lakes Naval Training Center and told they had been selected for Officer Candidate School.
It was a startling assignment.
A black man had graduated the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877 and the Army had its first black general in 1940. But when World War II began, African Americans were not even allowed to enlist in the Navy&rsquos general service. They were relegated to messmen: cooks and waiters whose chief function was to serve whites. Just two years later, thanks to pressure from civil rights leaders and the black press, the Navy told these 16 enlistees &mdash the sons and grandsons of slaves &mdash that they would attempt to integrate the officer corps and prove wrong the prevailing wisdom, which held that their race was incapable of discipline and unworthy of rank.
The story of the Navy&rsquos first black officers remains little known, overshadowed by the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen and Patton&rsquos Panthers. But their success, both as candidates and as officers, forever changed what was possible for African American sailors and anticipated the coming civil rights movement.
These officer candidates were not career military men. Prior to the war, they were metalsmiths, teachers, lawyers, college students, men who had witnessed lynchings and been denied jobs because of their skin, men who were segregated and humiliated even after enlisting. But when the opportunity to break the Navy&rsquos most rigid color barrier was presented, they swore they&rsquod work harder than they ever had &mdash for their own sake, for the countless souls who fought to make this moment possible and for the all the black men yet to come.
&ldquoWe were the hopes and aspirations of the blacks in the Navy,&rdquo William Sylvester White recalled 30 years later. &ldquoWe were the forerunners. What we did or did not do determined whether the program expanded or failed.&rdquo
There were roughly 100,000 black men in the Navy in January 1944. If any were ever to wear the gold stripes, to command a warship or graduate the Naval Academy, then this experiment would have to succeed. The candidates&rsquo training was the culmination of an unprecedented four-year push by civil rights leaders who demanded to know why black parents should sacrifice their sons to free Europe for a Democratic ideal that didn&rsquot exist in the United States.
&ldquoWe want democracy in Alabama, Arkansas, in Mississippi and Michigan, in the District of Columbia, in the Senate of the United States,&rdquo the NAACP editorialized in 1940.
Even after Pearl Harbor and the formal declaration of war, many African Americans found that the calls to defend democracy rang hollow, while the German talk of a superior race sounded strikingly familiar. The black press, a formidable political force whose influence in the African American community was rivaled only by the church, launched the Double V campaign, telling millions of readers that a true victory for democracy would only be gained if it was won both overseas and at home.
Ordinary citizens wrote their congressmen, senators, the President and his cabinet to protest a policy that deemed their sons &mdash who were eager to enlist in the Navy &mdash fit only to wash dishes or scrub floors.
&ldquoIt seems to me that that is a very cold and ugly situation,&rdquo J. E. Branham, a realtor from Cleveland, wrote Navy Secretary Frank Knox.
Their persistence led to 16 African American men being escorted to a Great Lakes barracks, which had 16 cots, 16 footlockers and one long table with 16 chairs. This was their home and their school. They were segregated from white officer candidates and separated from other black enlisted men. They were ordered to tell no one but their families what they were attempting. They were supposed to be in bed with the lights out at 10:30 p.m., but well past that hour, they sat together in the bathroom, flashlights in hand, studying seamanship, navigation, gunnery, naval regulation and naval law. They draped sheets over the windows so no one outside would notice the light. They were intent on proving that their &ldquoselection was justified,&rdquo Sam Barnes said, during the group&rsquos first reunion in 1977, &ldquoand that we weren&rsquot a party to tokenism.&rdquo
The men, who ranged in age from 23 to 36 years old, mastered in only a few weeks what many white candidates studied for years.
As their training drew to a close in March 1944, the group was posting grades like no other officer class in history. Their marks were so good, in fact, that some in Washington did not believe they could be real. The men were forced to take some exams a second time. They scored even higher, a collective 3.89 out of 4.0, the highest average of any class in Navy history.
Despite their success in the classroom, Navy officials decided that only 12 would be commissioned and a 13th would be made a warrant officer. No official explanation was ever given as to why three men were dropped from the program&mdashbut the decision meant that the first group of black officers, a group that passed with flying colors, would have the same completion rate as an average white class.
Their initial success did not mean these groundbreaking black ensigns would be spared future slights. They were refused housing, prohibited from officers&rsquo clubs and denied a chance to prove their mettle in combat. They were given make-work assignments: running drills, giving lectures on venereal disease and patrolling the waters off the California coast in a converted yacht. White enlisted men crossed the street to avoid saluting. The Navy kept their commissioning a quiet affair. There were no graduation exercises, no ceremonies, no celebrations. The Navy did nothing to promote their achievements even as they earned plaudits from their superiors and distinguished themselves in their post-war careers. For three decades, they were known only as &ldquothose Negro officers&rdquo of, later, as &ldquothose black officers.&rdquo
It wasn&rsquot until the 1970s that the Navy feted these men as symbols of pride and progress, a recruiting tool to inspire a new generation. Prior to their first reunion in 1977, Captain Edward Sechrest, a Vietnam veteran who was assigned to the Navy Recruiting Command, coined the term &ldquoGolden Thirteen,&rdquo a bit of ingenious PR that gave the group a catchy nickname the Navy could use to tout their achievements.
Their annual reunions garnered some press but, as the men began to pass, their story faded from memory. Few today are aware of the Golden Thirteen or their contribution to the Navy and the nation. Still, the lessons they imparted are more resonant than ever before. At a time of national trial, the Golden Thirteen remind us that our capacity for success isn&rsquot limited by politics or preconceived notions, that heroes aren&rsquot only found in cockpits and tanks and that, often, the most important victories for Democracy are those won off the battle field.
Joseph Paul Reason (1941- )
Joseph Paul Reason was the first African American to attain the rank of four-star admiral in the United States Navy. Reason was born March 22, 1941, in Washington, D.C., the son of Howard University librarian and French language professor Joseph Henry Reason, and schoolteacher Bernice Reason (née Chism). As a teenager at McKinley Technology High School, he showed interest in the military but his application to enroll in the school’s Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) was rejected. A year at Swarthmore College and a year at Lincoln University preceded Reason’s attendance at Howard University where, during his junior year he was contacted by Congressman Charles Diggs Jr. and persuaded to apply to the U.S. Naval Academy. Joseph Reason graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a degree in naval science and was commissioned a Navy Ensign in 1965.
Reason’s first assignment was as operations officer on the destroyer escort USS J. Douglas Blackwood. After completing study in nuclear power at naval training facilities in New York and Maryland he served on the USS Truxtun which was deployed for duty in Southeast Asia in 1968. Additional training at the Naval Postgraduate School earned him a degree in computer systems management. He returned to sea duty aboard the nuclear-powered USS Enterprise from 1970 to 1973, operating in waters in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. Promoted to Captain, Reason took courses at the Naval Destroyer School in Rhode Island and the Combat System Technical Schools Command in California. He returned to sea in 1976 on the USS Truxtun as Combat Systems Officer.
The American public got accustomed to seeing the 6’5” tall Reason in his next assignment serving as President Jimmy Carter’s Naval Aide who frequently trailed behind the president carrying a black case containing top-secret military codes, a role he filled in the White House from late 1976 to 1979.
Reason returned to the sea again as executive officer on the nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser USS Mississippi and commanding officer of the guided missile destroyers USS Coontz and USS Bainbridge. Following more training at Naval Reactors, a program jointly administered by the Navy and the U.S. Department of Energy, and at the time headed by Admiral Hyman Rickover, Reason was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1986 and sent to command Naval Base Seattle, managing naval activities for the states of Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. From 1988 to 1991, he commanded Cruiser-Destroyer Group One and Battle Group Romeo both of which patrolling eastern theaters. In 1990 Reason was promoted to Vice Admiral and given command of Naval Surface Forces in the Atlantic Fleet. When Reason was elevated to four-star Admiral in 1996, he was made Commander in Chief of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet composed of more than 190 ships, 1,300 aircraft, and 120,000 personnel at 17 naval bases, a post he held until he retired from the service in 1999.
Among Reason’s decorations were the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Republic of Vietnam Honor Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, and the National Defense Service Medal. In retirement, he was Vice President for Ship Systems at SYNTEK Technologies Inc. in Virginia. Reason also headed the ship repair firm of Metro Marine Corporation in Norfolk, Virginia, and served on the board of several businesses and an advisor to two national defense groups. Reason is a member of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity.
Lt. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and
Ensign Frances Wills
are photographed after graduation from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School at Northampton, Massachusetts, in Dec. 1944. They were the Navy’s first African-American “WAVES” officers.
Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives.
By Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Naval History and Heritage Command, Histories and Archives Division
“Navy to admit Negroes into the WAVES,” so read the newspaper headlines Oct. 19, 1944. For the first time black women would be commissioned naval officers as members of the Navy’s female reserve program.
The program first made news July 30, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law. Their official nickname was WAVES, an acronym for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. It would be two more years before the WAVES became open to all women.
It was not an easy journey. During the Congressional hearings Thomasina Walker of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority’s Non-Partisan Political Council testified the legislation creating the Navy’s female reserve program should include a non-discrimination clause so all eligible women could volunteer to serve. Her argument fell on deaf ears. Public Law 689 creating the program did not specify blacks could not be recruited, yet they were denied the opportunity to do so for most of the war.
Whites and blacks representing civic, religious, and civil rights organizations across the country urged the Navy to recruit black women. The black press published articles about blacks being turned away at recruitment offices and the individuals and organizations demanding the Navy reverse its policy of exclusion. During a campaign speech in Chicago, Thomas Dewey, the Republican candidate in the 1944 presidential election, accused his opponent President Franklin D. Roosevelt of discriminating against blacks by not allowing them to become WAVES.
Citizens expressed their opposition to the Navy’s policy of excluding blacks from the WAVES by sending letters and petitions to President Roosevelt and Secretary of the Navy William “Frank” Knox. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt held a meeting with military and civilian leaders to discuss the issue.
Capt. Mildred McAfee, the WAVES director, supported diversity but she was well aware of Secretary Knox’s objections. She is reported to have overheard him saying that “[Blacks] would be in the WAVES over his dead body.” James Forrestal succeeded Knox after a fatal heart attack in April 1944. The new Navy Secretary did not believe a segregated Navy was cost-effective or made the best use of naval personnel. Under his leadership, the WAVES and the Navy Nurse Corps integrated.
Frances Wills (left) and Harriet Ida Pickens are sworn in Nov. 16, 1944 as Apprentice Seamen by Lt. Rosamond D. Selle, USNR, at New York City. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, National Archives.
Harriet Ida Pickens, a public health worker, and social worker Frances Elizabeth Wills distinguished themselves in mid-December, 1944 as the first black women to receive their commissions in the U.S. Navy. Pickens’ father, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People advocated for the diversity of the WAVES program.
Interestingly, there were Japanese and Native American WAVES before Pickens and Wills. The Navy assigned Pickens as a physical training instructor and Wills as a classification test administrator at the main enlisted WAVES training facility at Hunter College in New York City, also known as USS Hunter. More than 70 blacks joined the enlisted ranks by Sept. 2, 1945. Among them was Edna Young, one of the first enlisted WAVES to later be sworn into the regular Navy.
Rear Adm. George L. Russell, USN, swears in the first six women in the Regular Navy on July 7, 1948, while the Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan, far left, looks on. Of the six enlistees, Yeoman Second Class Edna E. Young is in the center. She later becomes the first female African American promoted to rank of chief petty officer.NHHC Collection
During the past 70 years, black women across the ranks, ratings and communities have had outstanding careers in the Navy, including the following:
Edna Young was the first of her race and gender to be promoted to the rank of chief petty officer.
Brenda Robinson, the first black aviator, and Matice Wright, a naval flight officer, excelled in naval aviation.
Vivian McFadden integrated the Navy Chaplain Corps.
Janie Mines was the first black woman Naval Academy graduate.
Joan C. Bynum, a Navy nurse was the first black woman naval officer to attain the rank of captain (0-6).
Rear Adm. Lillian E. Fishburne, was the first African American woman to achieve that rank in the U.S. Navy.
Lillian E. Fishburne, a communications officer, was the first of her race and gender to reach the rank of rear admiral in 1998.
Fleet Master Chief April Beldo is one of a select few men or women to become a fleet or force master chief.
Annie Anderson is the third black woman flag officer
WASHINGTON (July 1, 2014) Adm. Michelle Howard lends a hand to Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) Ray Mabus as he and Wayne Cowles, Howard’s husband, put four-star shoulder boards on Howard’s service white uniform during her promotion ceremony at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. Howard is the first woman to be promoted to the rank of admiral in the history of the Navy and will assume the duties and responsibilities as the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations from Adm. Mark Ferguson. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Peter D. Lawlor/Released)
On July 1, 2014, Michelle J. Howard reached unprecedented heights with her promotion to the rank of four-star admiral and assignment as the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, the Navy’s first woman to hold that rank and position. Media outlets around the world celebrated her achievements. Howard is making history and doing a job that is reflective of her outstanding warfighting, leadership, and command abilities.
Just as the Navy was better with Pickens, Wills and the 70 enlisted women who followed them, it is better with Adm. Howard. Howard, like the first black female naval officers before her, is paving the way for even greater opportunities for women.
Black History Month: 1st African American to Command US Navy Aircraft Carrier
HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — Retired Rear Admiral Lawrence Chambers is the first African American to command a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. The 90-year-old now lives with his wife in Hillsborough County.
- First African American to command U.S. Navy aircraft carrier
- Rear Admiral Lawrence Chambers made national headlines in 1975
- Chambers disobeyed orders to save a South Vietnamese Air Force polit and his family
“I saw being skipper of an aircraft carrier as one hell of a big deal,” Chambers said. “Absolutely.”
One of the carriers Chambers commanded was the U.S.S. Midway during the Vietnam War.
Chamber’s leadership made national headlines in 1975 when he disobeyed orders to save a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot and his family.
“I thought I was going to have the shortest command tour on record but I’m going to do what the hell I think is right,” Chambers said.
The pilot desperately pleaded to land his plane on the U.S.S. Midway. He dropped a note that’s still framed in Chamber’s office.
“What really gets you is, he says, I have one hour of fuel left,” Chambers said. “He didn’t have enough fuel to make it back to the beach.”
But there was no space on the U.S.S. Midway. Helicopters blocked the landing area and the helicopters had no fuel. Chambers wanted to push the choppers overboard. His superior said no.
“I’m not going to repeat his words exactly, basically he said there’s no room,” Chambers said.
Chambers gave the command anyway, recruiting about 3 thousand servicemen to help.
“I probably pushed $100 million dollars worth of helicopters over the side to save seven people,” Chambers said.
It worked. The pilot landed safely.
Decades later, Chambers said he would not hesitate to give the command over again.
“You have choices and my advice to anybody in command is do what you think is right because it’s the only thing you can live with,” Chambers said.
On February 1, 1998, Lillian E. Fishburne became the first African American woman promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral (2 stars) in the United States Navy. In keeping with the spirit of Black History Month (every February) and expanding on our previous articles celebrating African American achievements, we take this opportunity to cite even more impressive achievements by African Americans, not just “firsts,” but other great accomplishments as well. (And see our recent article dated January 18, 2021), “Historic African American Firsts”) Who would you add to this list?
Lillian E. Fishburne, 1 st African American Woman Rear Admiral
Lillian earned her commission as a US Navy officer upon completing Women’s Officer School in 1973, 3 years before the United States began allowing women to attend US military service academies. She earned her BA from Lincoln University, Oxford, Pennsylvania (Sociology) and her MA from Webster College, St. Louis, Missouri (Management). She went on to earn a second Master of Science Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School (Telecommunications Systems Management) and later added a diploma from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Yeah, we think she could have earned an appointment to the US Naval Academy and graduated with honors! Her initial assignments in the Navy were in personnel and recruiting, and she later shifted to telecommunications and computers, an incredibly important part of the modern Navy. She retired in 2001, but not before earning an enviable number of medals and awards.
Ralph Bunche, 1 st African American Nobel Prize recipient
Born in Detroit, Michigan in 1904, Bunche lived through the “Jim Crow” era of racial discrimination in the United States and beat the pervasive racism of his era to earn a BA from UCLA (Valedictorian of the Class of 1927!) and a PhD from Harvard, so becoming the 1 st African American man to earn a PhD in Political Science from an American university. Not impressed enough? He added 3 years of post-doctoral academic work at the London School of Economics. Bunche worked as a professor at Howard University from 1928 to 1950, and also served in various functions at Harvard, Oberlin, Lincoln University and New Lincoln School. During World War II Bunche applied his knowledge as an officer of the OSS, the agency that later became the CIA. He then joined the US Department of State, and worked on setting up the United Nations. With the establishment of the new state of Israel in 1947, the tensions in the Middle East between Arab nations and Israel had broken out into a shooting war, which Bunche brokered the peace that at least temporarily stopped the shooting, earning himself the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1950. Bunche continued his role as an American and World diplomat, culminating in his appointment as Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1968. In the meantime, Bunche also tirelessly applied himself to the cause of Civil Rights in the United States and took part in some of the momentous events of the time (1960’s). Sadly, he died at the age of only 67 in 1971.
Thomas L. Jennings, 1 st African American awarded a patent
You may see references to Henry Blair as the “First African American Inventor,” but it was Jennings that actually applied for and was awarded the first patent in the United States to an African American man. His patent was for a method of dry cleaning way back in 1821. Numerous African Americans have contributed great inventions to the world and American society, notably Garrett Morgan, who invented one of the first practical and effective gas masks and the 3 position traffic signal.
Sarah E. Goode and Judy W. Reed, 1 st African American Woman awarded a patent
Depending on how you like to give credit for such things, Goode is sometimes listed as the 1 st African American woman granted a patent (1885) for her invention of a space saving folding bed to be used in the cramped confines of New York City tenements. Reed invented a bread dough kneading machine and was granted a patent in 1884, but signed her name with an “X” instead of a regular signature, creating the debate as to which woman deserves credit as the first to be granted a patent. We believe they both deserve credit! Goode was born in Toledo, Ohio, and Reed was from Washington, D.C..
LeBron James, 2020 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year
LBJ might not be the first African American athlete so honored, but we include him because he is our favorite basketball player. In spite of his indisputable greatness, his focus is always on the team, winning the games and the championship and NOT on himself. Not only the consummate team player, James also contributes an enormous amount of money and effort to better his community. He also happens to be pretty darn funny and a good actor. LeBron has a pretty good chance of going down in basketball history as the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), though his off-court accomplishments will ultimately outweigh his hardwood achievements. LeBron and the LA Lakers won the 2020 NBA Championship, giving LeBron his 4 th Championship ring. Can he do it again in 2021? We think he can and will, barring catastrophic injury or worsened pandemic.
Frank Robinson, Baseball Legend and Pioneering African American Manager
In discussing great African American baseball Hall of Famers, a name that jumps out that cannot be ignored is Frank Robinson, a slugger for several teams and the only player ever to win the League MVP award in both the American and the National League. He retired with 586 home runs and won the exceedingly rare batting Triple Crown in 1966 when he led the American League with 49 home runs, 122 RBI’s and batting an average of .316. A 14 time All-Star, Robinson played from 1956 to 1976, covering a time when Black players were often jeered and booed despite their on field performance. By 1975, the racial climate had improved markedly in the United States after the turmoil of the 1960’s, and in that year the Cleveland Indians made Frank Robinson the first African American Manager (actually a player manager for that first year) of a major league baseball team. Today we take it for granted that African Americans can be baseball managers or the head coach of other sports teams, but all these many Black managers and coaches today can trace their heritage to Frank Robinson. Robinson went on to manage the Giants, Orioles and Expos/Nationals after leaving the Indians. Sadly, Robinson died on February 7, 2019. (Cause of death was bone cancer.)
Bonus entry: Lloyd Austin, First African American Secretary of Defense
After this article was written, incoming US President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. nominated retired US Army General Lloyd Austin for the post of Secretary of Defense. Approved by the US Senate on January 22, 2021, Austin thus became the first African American Secretary of Defense in US history. Austin is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, and has an MA from Auburn University and an MBA from Webster University. A veteran of the War on Terror (Iraq and Afghanistan), Austin is the recipient of the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Silver Star, among his many decorations.
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The featured image in this article, a photograph by Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott Bigley of Adm. Michelle Howard, vice chief of Naval Operations, Rear Adm. Annie B. Andrews, commander, Navy Recruiting Command (NRC), and retired Rear Adm. Lillian E. Fishburne standing on stage during NRC’s change of command ceremony at Naval Support Activity Mid-South on Sept. 4, 2015, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.
Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.
Admiral Michelle Howard Became The First Four-Star Woman In Navy History
Vice Adm. Michelle Howard became the first female four-star admiral in the history of the Navy. The ceremony included a bit of comedy, but there was no denying the significance: For the first time in its history, the Navy promoted a woman to become a four-star admiral. Surrounded by friends, family, and peers, Adm. Michelle J. Howard was promoted to her new rank at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. She’ll take over as the vice chief of naval operations, the No. 2 officer in the service. She is not only the first woman to hold the job but the first African-American.
Commanding a Navy Ship
It’s the latest achievement for Howard, who previously was the first African-American woman to serve as a three-star officer in the U.S. military and command a U.S. Navy ship. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said her promotion is a “representation of how far we have come, and how far she has helped bring us.” Adm. Michelle Howard, flanked by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and her husband Wayne Cowles, accepted her new rank during a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
Howard is perhaps best known for leading Task Force 151, which oversaw counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. After Somali pirates attacked the cargo ship MV Maersk Alabama and captured its top officer, Capt. Richard Phillips, in April 2009, she devised a plan with others to get him back, dispatching the USS Bainbridge, a destroyer, to help. Navy SEAL snipers eventually opened fire on a small lifeboat carrying Phillips and three pirates, killing the bandits and freeing him. After being promoted, Howard told those assembled that when she called to order her new four-star shoulder boards, she was told they did not exist. An exclusive contract was devised to buy some, “and you folks are seeing the first set,” she said to cheers.
Women as Fighter pilots
After being promoted, Howard told those assembled that when she called to order her new four-star shoulder boards, she was told they did not exist. A particular contract was devised to buy some, “and you folks are seeing the first set,” she said to cheers. The Army and Air Force each have named four-star female officers in the past. The first one in the military, Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, retired in 2012, after serving as a four-star general for nearly four years. Howard said after the ceremony that the 1993 decision to allow women to serve on combatant ships and fly fighter jets remains one of the biggest for the Navy.