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History and Heritage

African American Firsts

Paying Homage to Black History

The Navy joins our nation in celebrating the vibrant history and culture of African American and black Sailors during African American/Black History Month throughout the month of February.

African American Sailors have a legacy of honorable service that permeates our naval history through every major armed conflict since the Revolutionary War. All Hands takes pride in highlighting nine African Americans who blazed trails and changed the course of history forever.

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Vice Adm. Michelle Janine Howard

Vice Adm. Michelle Janine Howard has been a trail-blazer throughout her entire career. At 17 years old she was accepted into the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., as part of only the third class to accept women. At the time, women made up only five percent of the Navy. Change is inevitable, and Howard rode a wave of it as she moved through her career. In 1980, the Navy opened logistics ships to women, allowing a lot of opportunities for women to serve at sea. Soon women were serving on combat ships and flying combat aircraft. In 1999 Howard fulfilled a dream. She took command of the amphibious dock landing ship USS Rushmore (LSD 47), becoming the first African-American woman in such a role.

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Phyllis Mae Dailey

The winning of World War II was a double victory for African Americans. It was a victory over the enemy overseas and a victory over prejudice at home. On March 8, 1945, Phyllis Mae Dailey was inducted into the United States Navy Nurse Corps, following changes in Navy recruitment and admittance procedures that had previously excluded black women from joining the Nurse Corps. The Nurse Corps was one of the last units to accept African Americans, making her selection even more notable. By August 1945, when the war ended, there were just four active duty African American nurses in the Navy Nurse Corps versus more than 6,000 that had served with the Women's Army Corps during the war.

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Chief Gunner's Mate John Henry Turpin

John Henry Turpin enlisted in the Navy on Nov. 4, 1896 at just 19 years old. He was a surviving member of USS Maine's (ACR 1) crew when she was destroyed by an explosion in February 1898. He also survived the boiler explosion on USS Bennington (PG 4) in July 1905. He served on several other ships and left active duty in 1916. He was recalled in April of 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I. On June 1 of that year, aboard the USS Marblehead (C 11), Turbin became a chief gunner's mate; one of the Navy's first African American chief petty officers. He served actively in that rank until he transferred to the Fleet Reserve on March 8, 1919. John Henry Turpin retired as a chief gunner's mate on Oct. 5, 1925.

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Master Chief Carl Brashear

Master Chief Carl Brashear, the Navy's first African American master diver, taught people world-wide that you can achieve your goals and can be held accountable by your characteristics as a person, and not by the color of your skin. Brashear joined the Navy in 1948. His unwavering determination to serve as a Navy diver paid off in 1954 when he was accepted and graduated from the diving program. In 1967, a year after an injury aboard the salvage ship USS Hoist (ARS 40) cost him his left leg, Brashear became the first Navy diver to be restored to full active duty as an amputee. He was the first black man to ever become a master diver in the Navy, a position he held from 1970 to 1979.

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Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown

Ensign Jesse LeRoy Brown, the Navy's first black aviator, wanted not only to fly, but to be of service to mankind. On Dec. 4, 1950, Ensign Jesse Brown's aircraft was hit while making a strafing run against the enemy during the Korean War. With tremendous skill, he managed to crash land on a rough, boulder-strewn slope. He survived the crash, only to remain stuck in the cockpit as smoke began to billow from the wreckage. He risked his life to help a Marine regiment without any race considerations, knowing only that Americans were in trouble. Although his career was met from start to tragic finish with immeasurable odds, his courage and devotion live on throughout our Navy's history.

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Vice Adm. Samuel Lee Gravely, Jr.

Samuel Lee Gravely, Jr., enlisted in the Naval Reserve in September 1942. Gravely was called to active duty in 1949. Over the next decade Gravely served at sea and ashore, including Korean War service. In 1955, he transferred from the Reserve to the active duty, where he served aboard USS Falgout (DE 324). In 1971, while serving as commanding officer of USS Jouett (CG 29), he was promoted to rear admiral. He was the first African-American to achieve flag rank in the Navy.

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Capt. Winston E. Scott

Capt. Winston E. Scott's journey to the stars started in Miami. His largely segregated education provided little access to resources, but his own determination combined with the dedication of his teachers, set him on an inspiring path of achievement. Scott entered Naval Aviation Officer Candidate School in 1973 and was designated a naval aviator in 1974. As a naval aviator, Scott piloted the F-14 Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet, and the A-7 Corsair. All together he has flown more than 5,000 flight hours on 20 different aircraft. He was selected by NASA for the astronaut program and reported to the Johnson Space Center in August 1992. He served as a mission specialist on STS-72 in 1996, and STS-87 in 1997, and has logged a total of 24 days, 14 hours and 34 minutes in space, including three spacewalks totaling 19 hours and 26 minutes.

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Frances Wills Thorpe and Harriet Ida Pickens

For Harriet Ida Pickens and Frances Wills Thorpe, Dec. 21, 1944 was one of the most exciting days of their lives. It was the day they were commissioned as officers in the United States Navy. It was also the day they stepped into history as the first African American women ever to receive such commissions. These two accomplished and well-educated women were more than qualified to serve their country as military officers in a time of war, with only their race standing in their way. However, the remarkable pair would help to tear that barrier down. The two were forever linked when together they were sworn into the U.S. Navy as apprentice seamen, then went on to join the last class of the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

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EN2 Fred Morrison

As part of the U.S. Navy's underwater demoliton teams, which were a precursor to the current U.S. Navy SEAL Teams, Fred "Tiz" Morrison was the first African-American Navy SEAL/Frogman. Morrison was awarded the Bronze Star for his heroics in the Korean War as part of UDT Team 12. Morrison was known as an expert in underwater demolitions. He was a veteran of the World War II and was part of UDT Team 1 in 1948. His official rank is U.S. Navy Engineman 2nd Class. Nicknamed "The Real Tarzan," there is little information on the life of Tiz Morrison. He has since passed on, but will always be remembered as the Navy's first African American Navy SEAL.

Sailors and their commands are encouraged to use this month to celebrate and recognize the exceptional and distinctive contributions and the unique histories and cultures that our African American and black shipmates bring to the Navy.

This year's theme is "Civil Rights in America."
More information on the many milestones achieved by African American and black Sailors and the history of the African American Navy experience can be found on the Naval History and Heritage Command's website.

A full-color brochure on the history of African Americans in the United States Navy is also available for download through the Naval History and Heritage Command link.

A complete educational presentation, including a downloadable educational poster on African American/Black History month, can be requested from the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute (DEOMI) by email at

Graphics by Willie Kendrick III, Defense Media Activity