Reflecting on Naval History During the 2012 African American/Black History Month

Story Number: NNS120124-16Release Date: 1/24/2012 4:10:00 PM
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By Ensign Amber Lynn Daniel, Diversity and Inclusion Public Affairs

WASHINGTON (NNS) -- As announced by NAVADMIN 026/12 released Jan. 24, the Navy joins our nation in celebrating African American/Black History Month throughout the month of February.

With a national theme of "Black Women in American History and Culture," commands are encouraged to learn more about the contributions of African Americans to the Navy, including the Navy's female Sailors.

African Americans have a long and notable history of service, first with state and continental navies and continuing with the establishment of the Department of the Navy in 1798. During the Civil War, black Sailors fought against slavery on every type of Union warship, and eight were Medal of Honor recipients.

During the Battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, landsman John Lawson was seriously wounded. A member of the ship's berth deck ammunition party, Lawson remained at his post despite his injuries and continued to supply USS Hartford's guns. For his heroism in that action, Lawson was the awarded the Medal of Honor.

In the 1880's, Ordinary Seaman Robert Sweeney was awarded the Medal of Honor twice within three years. Sweeney's first Medal of Honor was awarded for saving a shipmate from drowning while serving on board USS Kearsarge at Hampton Roads, Virginia on October 26, 1881. In addition while USS Jamestown was at the New York Navy Yard on December 20, 1883, Sweeney rescued another shipmate, A.A. George, who had fallen overboard and was drowning. Sweeney received a second Medal of Honor for his rescue of George.

On December 7, 1941, America was attacked by Japanese forces at Pearl Harbor. During the attack, Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris "Dorie" Miller remained steadfast at his post, machine-gunning inbound Japanese planes. Miller received the Navy Cross for his actions during the attack, and became one of America's first national heroes of World War II.

In 1942, Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. began his career as a seaman apprentice in the U.S. Navy. Gravely rose through the ranks and achieved many firsts for African Americans during his career, including becoming the first African American to command a combatant ship. Gravely was also the first African American to be promoted to flag rank and the first to command a Naval fleet. On May 16, 2009, an Arleigh Burke class guided-missile destroyer was christened the USS Gravely in his honor.

Following in Gravely's footsteps was J. Paul Reason. Raised in Washington, D.C., Reason initially chose to enter the U.S. Naval Academy because it seemed the most economical way to get an excellent education. Reason went on to make the Navy his career, and in 1996 he broke one of the most significant color barriers left within the Navy, becoming the first African American four-star admiral.

"I totally attribute my success to those who have gone before me - all minorities," Reason said during a 2009 interview with American Forces Press Service. "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."

The contributions of African Americans in Navy history aren't just reserved for men, however. In December 1944, Lt. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills made history when they became the first African American officers in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) program. African American females first enlisted in the Navy during World War I, and continue to serve with distinction and honor today.

When she was 12 years old, Michelle Howard told her older brother she wanted to join the Navy. A quarter century later, Commander Howard became the skipper of the USS Rushmore and the first African American woman to command a U.S. warship. Howard went on to lead an amphibious squadron, serve as senior military assistant to the Secretary of the Navy, and ultimately achieve flag rank. In 2010, she was selected to two-star rank and began serving as Chief of Staff to the Director of Strategic Plans and Policy on the Joint Staff.

African American/Black History Month serves as an important time for all Sailors to reflect on the history of our Navy, as well as its future. More information, including the many milestones achieved by African American Sailors and the history of the African American Navy experience can be found at the Naval History and Heritage Command

More information on Navy diversity events, including African American and Black history, can be found on the Navy Diversity and Inclusion calendar. To view a list of all of the upcoming diversity events, visit

Complete educational presentations on African American/Black History month can also be found on the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) website. Links include special observance presentations and a downloadable commemorative poster. For a complete list of available materials, visit

For more news from Chief of Naval Personnel - Diversity and Inclusion, visit

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Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos view the Department of the Navy tribute to African American Leadership display at the Pentagon.
110713-N-DX698-036 WASHINGTON (July 13, 2011) Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus and Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James F. Amos view the Department of the Navy tribute to African American Leadership display at the Pentagon. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jay M. Chu/Released)
July 13, 2011
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