African Americans in the Navy by Rudi Williams
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 were 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.
African-Americans and the U.S. Navy -- 1860s
African-Americans were present in the crews of U.S. Navy ships throughout the 19th Century. This presence was greatly enhanced during the Civil War as newly freed slaves and a greatly expanded Navy worked together in a common purpose. In addition, African-American civilians provided support services that were essential to keeping the wartime navy functioning effectively.
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. John Lawson was born in Pennsylvania in 1837. In 1864, he was a member of USS Hartford's crew. During the Battle of Mobile Bay, 5 August 1864, while serving as a member of the ship's berth deck ammunition party, he was seriously wounded. However, he remained at his post and continued to supply the Hartford's guns. For his heroism in this action, John Lawson was awarded the Medal of Honor.
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.
African-Americans and the U.S. Navy -- World War II
When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, the Navy's African-American sailors had been limited to serving as Mess Attendants for nearly two decades. However, the pressures of wartime on manpower resources, the good examples of heros like Doris Miller, the willingness of thousands of patriotic men to participate in the war effort plus well-focused political activities gradually forced changes. Though the Navy remained racially segregated in training and in most service units, in 1942 the enlisted rates were opened to all qualified personnel. In 1944, African-Americans' aspirations were further gratified when the Navy commissioned its first-ever officers of their race.
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.
The Vietnam War Era, 1965-1972
The War in Vietnam came as the U.S. Southern civil rights struggle was reaching a climax, and the two conflicts defined a watershed in race relations in the United States. African-Americans were heavily involved in Vietnam combat operations, generally in the lower ranks. As the war became longer and appeared less likely to produce a victorious outcome, racial and other tensions in American society, and in the Navy, reached an unprecedented level. During the early 1970s, this situation led to major changes in the Navy's approach to its African-American personnel.
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.
The Current Era 1985-2001
Though not perfect, the Navy is more integrated and diverse now than it has ever been. Opportunity to rise in the ranks based on merits and experience is the standard practise of today‘s navy.
As of Feb. 1, 2001, there are eight African American male admirals and one woman admiral serving in the US Navy.
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.
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 retired in February 2001.
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.
and the U.S. Navy
There are many U.S. Navy Ships Named in Honor of African Americans. Here is a list of most if not all of them.
As of late 1998, nine Navy ships have been named in honor of African-Americans. U.S. Navy Ships (including ships of the Military Sealift Command) named in honor of African-Americans include:
USS Harmon, 1943-1967. The first ship to be named for an African-American, Harmon honored Mess Attendant First Class Leonard Roy Harmon, who posthumously was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism during the Naval Leonard Roy Harmon, Mess Attendant First Class, USN
Poster featuring Mess Attendant Harmon and USS Harmon, which was named in his honor. He was killed in action on board USS San Francisco during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, 13 November 1942. For his heroism in that action, Mess Attendant Harmon was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross. The poster also features the text of his award citation and a representation of the Navy Cross medal. Battle of Guadalcanal, 13 November 1942.
USS George Washington Carver, 1966-1993. Named in honor of the noted scientist George Washington Carver (1864-1943).
USS Jesse L. Brown, 1973-1994. Named in honor of Ensign Jesse L. Brown, USN (1926-1950), the first African-American Naval Aviator, who was killed in action during the Korean War.
USS Miller 1973-200_. Named in honor of Cook Third Class Doris ("Dorie") Miller, who was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism during the Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941.
Doris Miller, Mess Attendant Second Class, USN (1919-1943)
Just after being presented with the Navy Cross by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, on board USS Enterprise at Pearl Harbor, 27 May 1942. The medal was awarded for heroism on board USS West Virginia (BB-48) during the Pearl Harbor Attack, 7 December 1941.
USNS PFC James Anderson, Jr., 1985-20__. Named in honor of Private First Class James Anderson, Jr., USMC (1947-1967), who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Vietnam War.
USS Rodney M. Davis, 1987-20__. Named in honor of Sergeant Rodney M. Davis, USMC (1942-1967), who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Vietnam War.
USNS Henson, 1998-20__. Named in honor of the Arctic Explorer Matthew Alexander Henson (1866-1955).
USNS Watson, 1998-20__. Named in honor of Private George Watson, U.S. Army (19??-1943), who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Second World War. There are, as yet, no pictures of this ship in the Naval Historical Center's Collections.
USS Oscar Austin. Named in honor of Private First Class Oscar P. Austin, USMC (1948-1969), who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Vietnam War.
It‘s a certainty that in the future more ships will be named after African-Americans.
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