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For the Deckplates

Black History - A Sailor’s Perspective

by MA3 Christopher T. Wilson | 19 February 2021

by MA3 Christopher T. Wilson | 19 February 2021

Historically speaking, African American service members have played pivotal roles in the history of the U.S. Military, and especially within the U.S. Navy. Black History month has massive potential to provide much overdue education and appreciation of those accomplishments. 

African Americans have been pillars of innovation throughout history, while continuously overcoming scrutiny and adversity. African American history is so rich and diverse, yet at the same time, unappreciated and undervalued by many. 

As we mark the 52nd celebration of Black History Month in the United States, I'd like to share a few thoughts and remembrances of African Americans in the Navy, and a little perspective on how Black History Month came to be. 

Being Black and in the United States Navy is about way more than just myself. As African American servicemen and women, we lean on one another for mentorship and support -- both mentally and physically. This works because we know the imbalances and imperfections each of us face daily. 

Equality brings unity in the United States of America, which is sadly what's missing today in my opinion.

The idea of celebrating Black history first originated in 1926 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an American historian, author, and journalist who has been called the "father of Black history."

Woodson helped establish what was originally Negro History Week in 1926. His goal was to ensure that "the world see the Negro as a participant rather than as a lay figure in history". 

Annually held the second week in February, coinciding with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the week's purpose was to educate everyone about the accomplishments of Blacks throughout history.

Woodson felt that African American contributions in history "were overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed by the writers of history textbooks and the teachers who use them."

Racial prejudice, he concluded, grew out of this intentional omission as "the inevitable outcome of thorough instruction to the effect that the Negro has never contributed anything to the progress of mankind." 

The Black United Students and Black educators at Kent State University expanded this idea to include an entire month, beginning on February 1, 1970. Since 1976, every President of the United States has designated February as Black History Month.

"If a race has no history, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world and stands in danger of being exterminated," Woodson wrote – powerful words considering current events.

With that in mind, I'd like to take a walk through the accomplishments of a number of our African American shipmates through the years. 

Starting in 1893, African Americans in the Navy could only join specific ratings such as Messman (Culinary Specialist) and Retail Service Specialist (formerly named Steward) jobs, which segregated African Americans from the Navy community, precluding them from becoming commissioned officers.
In April 1917, the United States entered World War I. June 1st, 1917, the U.S. Navy promoted John Henry (Dick) Turpin to Chief Gunner's Mate, making him one of the first African American Chief Petty Officers in the Navy. 

The Navy had enlisted African Americans for general service, but they were prohibited from any further career progressions (e.g., commissioning) from 1919 to 1932. 

In May 1942, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz pinned the Navy Cross on CS3 Doris Miller for his valor and immediate actions in defense of his fellow shipmates' life during Pearl Harbor, making him the first African American hero. The future USS Doris Miller (CVN-81) is named in his honor.

In March 1944, the Navy's first African American commissioned officers were appointed and became known as The Golden Thirteen. 

Among their ranks was Charles Byrd Lear, the only one appointed as a warrant officer -- he was the first African American Chief Warrant Officer.

For me, it's very impressive to see who was first, because it's the starting point to me and shows the path to reach a goal of mine -- becoming a Chief Warrant Officer.

Though not one of the Golden Thirteen, Vice Adm. Samuel L. Gravely, Jr became the first African American man to be commissioned through the Navy's V-12 program, the predecessor to today's Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Gravely enlisted in 1942 and entered the V-12 program after boot camp at Great Lakes. During his 36-year career, Gravely would achieve quite a few "firsts."

As one of the first African American officers at sea, Gravely served on USS PC-1264, one of two World War II Navy ships with predominantly Black crews.

During the Korean War, he served as the communications officer on the battleship USS Iowa, and in 1961, Gravely became first African American officer to command a navy ship, the destroyer USS Theodore E. Chandler. 

In all, he would command four ships. One of them, they destroyer USS Taussig, would deploy to Vietnam in 1966, making him the first African American officer to command a Navy ship in combat. In 1967, he became the first African American to reach the rank of captain, and in 1971, the first to reach rear admiral.

As a flag officer, he first commanded Cruiser-Destroyer Group Two, followed by Third Fleet, and finally the Defense Communications Agency in Washington, DC. Vice Adm. Gravely retired in 1980. In 2010, the Arleigh Burke Class Guided Missile Destroyer USS Gravely entered the fleet, named his honor.  

The first Black to serve on the Navy's Underwater Demolition Teams was Engineman 2nd Class Fred "Tiz" Morrison, who cut his teeth in UDT during World War II. Known by his UDT 1 teammates as "Super Frog," Morrison would be awarded the Bronze Star during the Korean War. 

Though many refer to Morrison as the Navy's first Black SEAL, that honor goes to another frogman, retired Master Chief Bill Goins. Goins graduated Underwater Demolition Team training in 1956 and became the first and only Black Sailor assigned to one of the first two SEAL Teams created by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
Most know of Master Chief Boatswain's Mate (MDV) Brashear through actor Cuba Gooding Jr., who played Brashear in the movie Men of Honor, released in 2000. 

Like Gravely, Brashear also racked up an impressive list of "firsts." 

In 1954, he was the first African American to attend and graduate from the Diving & Salvage School, making him the first African American U.S. Navy Diver in the modern era.

In 1966, he lost his lower left leg in an accident at sea. Two years later, he became the first amputee to requalify as a Navy Diver. Two years later, he was selected as a Master Diver, the first African American to earn the Navy's highest diving qualification. 

Brashear served until 1979, finishing his career as the Command Master Chief (CMC) and Command Master Driver on board the Submarine Tender USS Hunley and the rescue and salvage ship USS Recovery. He was motivated by his beliefs that "It's not a sin to get knocked down; it's a sin to stay down" and "I ain't going to let nobody steal my dream." In 2005, the Navy named a dry cargo ship in Brashear's honor, a ship that is still in service today.   

Over the past 30 years, Black women in the Navy began making history as well. 

Fleet Master Chief (AW/SW) April D. Beldo would become the first female CMC of Recruit Training Command, Great Lakes, Ill., and later the first African American female CMC on an aircraft carrier when she reported to the USS Carl Vinson in 2009. 

Her "firsts" continued as she became the first female and first African American Force Master Chief (FORCM) for Naval Education and Training Command in 2012, as well as the first female and African American to serve as the Navy's Manpower, Personnel, Training, and Education (MPT&E) Fleet Master Chief (FLTCM), in 2017. 

On the officer side, the first African American female promoted to flag rank was Lillian Fishburne, who become a Rear Admiral in 1998. 

Now retired Admiral Michelle Howard, was the first African American to female to command a U.S. Navy ship and rose to be the first female and third African American to wear first four-stars. 

Even after retirement, these women continue to take a hands-on mentorship approach to junior enlisted of color and promoted a new way to enhance a greater appreciation of the U.S. Navy.

Today, only 10 of the Navy's current 268 admirals are African American. Most are rear admirals, and none currently hold either of the two highest ranks. 

African Americans comprise about 13% of the U.S. population, but roughly 8.1% of Naval officers are Black, according to a 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service. Graduating from the Naval Academy is a prestigious honor, but fewer than 6% of the Naval Academy class is African American.

Still, the firsts keep coming. This January, the U.S. Navy appointed Commanders Kimberly Jones, Kathryn Wijnaldum, and LaDonna Simpson as the commanding officers of the USS Oak Hill, USS Tortuga, and USS Carter Hall respectively, making history as the first three African American Women to command a U.S. Navy Warships simultaneously. 

In November 2019, Ret. Rear Admiral Sinclair Harris and Ret. Lieutenant Commander Keith Green hosted the National Naval Officers Association's annual conference.

Speaking to the conference, Green noted out loud what most minority Sailors already know when he stated, "not only do you have to do all the other stressful things that any military person has to do to" and "as a person of color you have to play that double game of trying to figure out why you're being treated differently or what's happening to you. Why is something happening to you that isn't happening to other people?" 

African American officers, Green went on to say, become adept at working around troublesome colleagues, but expressed that it still takes its toll on Black Sailors' careers. At the same time, they continue to pursue their ambitions.

In the wake of the protests sparked by George Floyd's death in Minneapolis, a national conversation ensued about lingering inequalities in our country. 

The Navy stood up Task Force One Navy last July to take a deep look at institutional issues in the Navy. That group, led by African American Sailors Rear Adm. Alvin Holsey and Force Master Chief Huban Phillips, presented its final report to the Navy on Jan. 28. Time will show how the Navy will change to become a more inclusive workplace for everyone as a result of this study. 

But as a Sailor in 2021, I find there's a lot of hope on the horizon.  

On Jan. 20, Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th U.S. President. With Biden came Kamala Harris, native to my hometown, Oakland, California. Harris was sworn in as Vice President, becoming the first woman and the first Black woman to hold the nation's second highest office. 

Shortly after the inauguration, Biden named, and the Senate confirmed, retired 4-star General Lloyd Austin III as the first African American Secretary of Defense.

As a Black service member aspiring to be a Chief Warrant Officer, I've been honored to serve six years in the United States Army and now, four-years in the United States Navy. Seeing these events unfold is a powerful and symbolic glimmer of hope for the necessary change needed in this unbalanced society.

A leader of mine once told me, "Struggle is simply a test…you either want it or you don't. No in between. Commitment is the determining factor." 

A mentor of mine always used to say, "To FAIL is just your FIRST attempt in Life." "In order to be a great leader, you first need to remember the 3M's; The Mission, the Men and Me." 

In the end, I will leave you with what this has meant to me.

We all are faced with adversities of various kinds that we neither want nor asked for in life, but it's how we adapt to these adversities by showing the true grit that determines a person's character.  We go through adversities and downfalls in what seems like a continuous cycle of Black holes in life. 

Our ability to be physically and mentally tough determines whether you are going to give in to those adversities, or get back up, readjust your sight, and live life by an axiom I always stand by; ‘be tact, always adapt and override through adversity, persevering for a greater outcome."

MA3 Christopher T. Wilson, has been in the Navy for four years and is stationed at Naval Support Activity, Bethesda. 


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