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"'Segregation Was An...Error.' Black Sailors... Men with a Proud History." Commander's Digest. Vol. 12, no. 2. Washington, D.C. GPO, May 18, 1972. P. 8-9, 16.

SuDoc No.: D2.15/2

Though not directly related to the topic, this article presents an amazing history of African-Americans in the U.S. Navy. Of particular note is Robert Smalls, a slave who piloted a Confederate war ship during the American Civil War. Smalls and his fellow slave crewmen stole the Confederate ship and brought it to the North. Information Smalls' gave the Union led directly to the defeat of Fort Sumter. He and his crew were rewarded and Smalls ultimately served four terms in the South Carolina and United States Houses of Representatives.


'Segregation Was An...Error.' Black Sailors... Men with a Proud History.

Source: "'Segregation Was An...Error.' Black Sailors... Men with a Proud History." Commander's Digest. Vol. 12, no. 2. Washington, D.C. GPO, May 18, 1972. P. 8-9, 16. President John F. Kennedy once said, "The price of freedom has always been high, but we as Americans have always paid it." This is especially true of America's black Navymen.

Some 30,000 black men and women, including nearly 600 officers, are currently on duty with the U.S. Navy. They serve in a variety of Navy ratings and in a wide range of pay grades. Few are aware that their history is as old and as proud as the Nation itself.

On Christmas night, 1863, the Union gunboat Marblehead engaged in a furious artillery duel with Confederate shore batteries in the Stone River, near Legareville, South Carolina. During that battle Robert Blake became the first black Navyman to win the Medal of Honor. As a steward aboard the Marblehead, Blake could have gone below decks to relative safety. Instead he chose to replace a powderboy who had been killed. Someone had to carry the gunpowder boxes to ensure equal distribution to all of the gun crews.

Fourteen hours later, the Confederates were defeated and the captain of the Marblehead entered in his log-book that Robert Blake "...excited my admiration by the cool and brave manner in which he served the guns..."

In recognition of his gallant performance, the courageous ex-slave was awarded the Medal of Honor for "conspicuous gallantry, extraordinary heroism and intrepidity at the risk of his own life..."

Eight other black Navymen have also earned the highest of the Nation's awards for valor.

The history of the black man in the Navy actually dates back to the American Revolution. Fifteen hundred blacks served in the Navy during the Revolutionary War, loading guns, working sails, manning boats and piloting coastal vessels.

In the War of 1812, black men comprised about one-sixth of the total naval personnel. After the battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry said of John Johnson, one of the 15 blacks on board Perry's ship... "his name ought to be registered in the book of fame and remembered with reverence as long as bravery is a virtue..."

During the battle, Johnson was struck in the hip by a cannon ball and nearly cut in half. Even as he lay dying, Johnson entreated his shipmates over and over, "Fire away, my boys, no haul the Color (the American flag) down."

Nearly one-quarter of the total force, some 30,000 black men fought with the Union Navy during the Civil War and many others served on Confederate ships. Of the 3,220 Union Navy casualties in the war, 800 were black. For extraordinary heroism, five black Navymen earned the Nation's highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor.

One of the most amazing feats of the war was achieved by Robert Smalls, a slave pilot on the new Confederate steamer CSS Planter.

Early in the morning, while the officers were ashore, Smalls and 15 members of the slave crew got the Planter underway and headed toward the open sea. With the rebel flag flying, they boldly sailed past the guns of the rebel forts which guarded the harbor entrance, giving the correct routine signal with the ship's whistle as they passed.

Finally, the ship came abreast of the huge guns of Fort Sumter and since everything appeared to be normal, passed unchallenged.

As soon as the ship was out of range of the fort's cannon, Smalls hoisted a white flag and delivered the ship to the Union Navy blockading the harbor. The intelligence information obtained from Smalls was directly instrumental in the defeat of Fort Sumter. For their courageous act, Smalls and his crew were awarded half the cash value of the ship and its cargo. Following this, Smalls was named captain of the vessel and served as its commanding officer until it was decommissioned in 1886. After the war, Smalls was elected to both the South Carolina and the U.S. House of Representatives for four terms.

Less than a year later, three more black men added their names to the list of America's naval heroes: John Lawson, on board Admiral Farragut's flagship, the USS Hartford, and William Brown and James Mifflin aboard the USS Brooklyn.

The fifth Medal of Honor winner was Joachim Pease of New York, a gun loader on the USS Kearsage. In a bitter 60-minute battle, the deadly accurate fire of the Kearsage sent the powerful Confederate raider CSS Alabama to her doom. According to the commanding officer of the Kearsage, Pease "fully sustained his reputation as one of the best men on the ship."

In the years of peace that followed, black sailors continued to serve in the Navy. Some distinguished themselves as heroes, but most just did their jobs, and did them well.

Josesph B. Noil, a native of Nova Scotia, was one of the heroes. On December 26, 1872, while serving aboard the USS Powhatan, Noil heard a shipmate fall overboard. Without hesitation he jumped into the icy water and pulled the man back on board, exhausted but safe. For this heroic act, Noil became the sixth black sailor to win the Medal of Honor.

During the Spanish-American War also, black Americans served in the Navy. Two of them, Daniel Atkins and Robert Penn, added their names to the list of men whose courage was deemed to be "above and beyond the call of duty."

The first hint of any segregation in naval policy made its appearance shortly after the advent of the Spanish-American War. By the time of World War I, that small seed had grown to full bloom, and the 10,000 black men who volunteered for naval service were relegated to duty as messmen. At the end of World War I, all black enlistments were stopped until 1932. When enlistments were reopened, it was official policy that blacks could be recruited only for messmen duties.

These conditions continued to prevail until December 7, 1941, when hundreds of Japanese airplanes dropped out of a Sunday morning sky and attacked Pearl Harbor. Even as the bombs were falling, a black sailor once again stepped forward to make his mark in history. Aboard the battleship West Virginia was Mess Attendant Doris "Duke" Miller. During the attack, the ship's commanding officer was fatally wounded. Miller and several other men carried their dying commander to shelter under a hail of gunfire. Miller then manned one of the ship's anti-aircraft guns, and though he had no formal training in the use of that weapon, shot down several of the attacking aircraft.

Three months after the attack, "Dorie" Miller was presented the Navy Cross, the Navy's highest award for gallantry.

Later in the war, another black sailor, Leonard Harmon, received the Navy Cross. Harmon was killed when he exposed himself to hostile gunfire while attempting to protect one of his shipmates during the battle of Guadalcanal on November 12, 1942.

Few, if any, could possibly have recognized it at the time, but the end of segregation in the Navy had already begun. The Selective Service Act of 1940 was the "prime mover" of a series of actions that would eradicate the segregation policies in the Navy within the next few years. One of the Act's provisions was that " the selection and training of men under the Act, and in the interpretation and execution of the provisions of this Act, there shall be no discrimination against any person on account of race or color..."

The Navy at that time was relying primarily on volunteers, but the War Commission, with the full backing of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, eventually forced the Navy to accept a certain percentage of black draftees. In the summer of 1942, the Navy ordered an end to the policy of enlisting blacks only as messmen. They were once again accepted in all general service ratings. That meant that they could be trained to serve in such capacities as gunner's mates, yeomen, signalmen and radiomen. Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox stipulated, however, that the black Navymen would have to be segregated in training schools, quarters and units.

To meet that requirement, Camp Robert Smalls was established at Great Lakes Naval Training Center, Illinois. Basic training of all black recruits and advanced technical training were to be conducted there and at Virginia's Hampton Institute.

In 1944, at Great Lakes, 12 blacks were commissioned as ensigns. Later that year, another group of officers was commissioned in the Navy's corps of staff officers. By the end of World War II, the Navy had 60 black officers, including two women officers in the WAVES.

Segregated schools, training camps, and units had produced a massive waste of manpower. An experimental effort to remedy the situation was the manning of one patrol boat and one destroyer escort with all-black crews serving under white officers. Integration of the crews of 25 auxiliary ships in 1944 was so successful that the policy was extended to cover all auxiliary ships the following year. Finally, on February 27, 1946, general service assignments without restriction were opened to blacks. Segregation as an official policy was then dead.

Looking back, the commanding officer of the Service Schools summed up the opinion of the majority when he said, "Segregation was an... error. It was un-American and inefficient... a waste of money and manpower."

At war's end, the future for blacks in the Navy did not seem to hold much promise, and nearly all of the officers elected to return to civilian life. A few others entered in the years following, but hardly any remained for extended periods.

By the time of the Korean conflict, black officers and enlisted men were still a small but vital part of the Navy's operating forces. Among those who served with distinction was Ensign Jesse L. Brown, a native of Mississippi. Ensign Brown was the first black American to win the wings of a naval aviator. He was killed in action during a daring series of attacks on enemy ground troops and supply lines on December 5, 1950, and was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

Today, in ever-increasing numbers, black men and women are adding new pages to the proud history of those who served before them with dignity, courage and distinction. Since 1967 the number of black officers has more than doubled.

Three new Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) units have been established at predominantly black colleges and universities (Prairie View A & M, Savannah State and Southern University), and more are being planned. Eighty-three black midshipmen are presently enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy, forty-five of whom entered last year. A special office has been established within the Naval Recruiting Command to concentrate specifically on attracting minority personnel to all Navy programs.

Under the able leadership of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., the Chief of Naval Operations, and with the full backing of the Secretary of the Navy, a wide range of programs is now underway to ensure that equal opportunity is a reality and to preserve the human dignity of every individual member of the Naval service.

Last year Rear Admiral Samuel L. Gravely Jr. said, "...To be the first black officer to be selected for flag rank is indeed an honor. But whereas I may have been the first, I will not be the last..." His statement is true. In the Navy, as in the Nation, black Americans will be as vital a part of the future as they were of the past.

Source: "'Segregation Was An...Error.' Black Sailors... Men with a Proud History." Commander's Digest. Vol. 12, no. 2. Washington, D.C. GPO, May 18, 1972. P. 8-9, 16.

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