How the U.S. Navy’s First Black Officers Helped Reshape the American Military

This 365 days marks the 75th anniversary of the US victory over Germany and Japan in World Battle II, and the celebrations, the films and the memorials will level of curiosity on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Nonetheless one in all essentially the most consequential battles of the battle didn’t assign recount out of the country. It became once waged about 35 miles north of Chicago—and its forever changed the U.S. Navy.

In early 1944, as the US willing for the invasion of France, 16 African American sailors, summoned from shore installations and training colleges across the country, were introduced to the principle recount of job at Wide Lakes Naval Practicing Center and told they’d been selected for Officer Candidate Faculty.

It became once a startling assignment.

A shadowy man had graduated the US Protection force Academy at West Point in 1877 and the Army had its first shadowy overall in 1940. Nonetheless when World Battle II began, African People weren’t even allowed to enlist in the Navy’s overall service. They were relegated to messmen: cooks and waiters whose chief characteristic became once to relieve whites. Accurate two years later, as a result of strain from civil rights leaders and the shadowy press, the Navy told these 16 enlistees — the sons and grandsons of slaves — that they’d strive to integrate the officer corps and teach sinful the present wisdom, which held that their flee became once incapable of self-discipline and unworthy of shameful.

The story of the Navy’s first shadowy officers remains little identified, overshadowed by the heroism of the Tuskegee Airmen and Patton’s Panthers. Nonetheless their success, every as candidates and as officers, forever changed what became once that you may well also judge of for African American sailors and anticipated the arriving civil rights motion.

These officer candidates weren’t profession militia males. Old to the battle, they were metalsmiths, lecturers, lawyers, college students, males who had witnessed lynchings and been denied jobs thanks to their skin, males who were segregated and humiliated even after enlisting. Nonetheless when the exchange to interrupt the Navy’s most inflexible shade barrier became once presented, they swore they’d work more difficult than they ever had — for their very possess sake, for the endless souls who fought to construct this 2nd that you may well also judge of and for the the total shadowy males but to come.

“We were the hopes and aspirations of the blacks in the Navy,” William Sylvester White recalled 30 years later. “We were the forerunners. What we did or didn’t produce droop whether the program expanded or failed.”

William Sylvester White Jr. in Chicago right via World Battle II.

Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Photos

There were roughly 100,000 shadowy males in the Navy in January 1944. If any were ever to wear the gold stripes, to snarl a warship or graduate the Naval Academy, then this experiment would have to prevail. The candidates’ coaching became once the culmination of an unparalleled four-365 days push by civil rights leaders who demanded to hang why shadowy oldsters would perhaps well also fair peaceable sacrifice their sons to free Europe for a Democratic most attention-grabbing that didn’t exist in the US.

“We want democracy in Alabama, Arkansas, in Mississippi and Michigan, in the District of Columbia, in the Senate of the US,” the NAACP editorialized in 1940.

Even after Pearl Harbor and the formal declaration of battle, many African People found that the calls to defend democracy rang hole, whereas the German discuss of a superior flee sounded strikingly acquainted. The shadowy press, a formidable political force whose affect in the African American community became once rivaled handiest by the church, launched the Double V marketing campaign, telling millions of readers that a excellent victory for democracy would handiest be won if it became once won every out of the country and at home.

Traditional electorate wrote their congressmen, senators, the President and his cabinet to remark a protection that deemed their sons — who were desirous to enlist in the Navy — match handiest to natty dishes or scrub flooring.

“It seems to me that that would perhaps well also very effectively be a truly cold and unsightly relate,” J. E. Branham, a realtor from Cleveland, wrote Navy Secretary Frank Knox.

Come by your history fix in a single recount: enroll for the weekly TIME History e-newsletter

Their persistence resulted in 16 African American males being escorted to a Wide Lakes barracks, which had 16 cots, 16 footlockers and one long desk with 16 chairs. This became once their home and their college. They were segregated from white officer candidates and separated from other shadowy enlisted males. They were ordered to uncover no one nonetheless their families what they were attempting. They were presupposed to be in bed with the lights out at 10: 30 p.m., nonetheless effectively past that hour, they sat together in the lavatory, flashlights in hand, studying seamanship, navigation, gunnery, naval law and naval regulations. They draped sheets over the windows so no one outdoors would peek the gentle. They were intent on proving that their “exchange became once justified,” Sam Barnes said, right via the neighborhood’s first reunion in 1977, “and that we weren’t a birthday party to tokenism.”

The males, who ranged in age from 23 to 36 years earlier, mastered in handiest a couple of weeks what many white candidates studied for years.

As their coaching drew to a halt in March 1944, the neighborhood became once posting grades like no other officer class in history. Their marks were so correct, if truth be told, that some in Washington didn’t declare they’ll be exact. The males were compelled to assign some checks a 2nd time. They scored even elevated, a collective 3.89 out of 4.0, the excellent moderate of any class in Navy history.

Read Extra: These Photos of a Segregated U.S. Navy Unit Were Misplaced for A long time. They Mild Dangle a Yarn to Present

No subject their success in the school room, Navy officials decided that handiest 12 will be commissioned and a 13th will be made a warrant officer. No loyal clarification became once ever given as to why three males were dropped from the program—nonetheless the choice supposed that the first neighborhood of shadowy officers, a neighborhood that handed with flying colours, would have the identical completion payment as a median white class.

Their preliminary success didn’t mean these groundbreaking shadowy ensigns will be spared future slights. They were refused housing, prohibited from officers’ golf equipment and denied every other to teach their mettle in fight. They got construct-work assignments: working drills, giving lectures on venereal disease and patrolling the waters off the California cruise in a converted yacht. White enlisted males crossed the avenue to lead clear of saluting. The Navy saved their commissioning a gentle affair. There were no commencement exercises, no ceremonies, no celebrations. The Navy did nothing to advertise their achievements even as they earned plaudits from their superiors and famed themselves in their put up-battle careers. For 3 a protracted time, they were identified handiest as “these Negro officers” of, later, as “these shadowy officers.”

It wasn’t till the 1970s that the Navy feted these males as symbols of enjoyment and growth, a recruiting system to inspire a brand unusual technology. Old to their first reunion in 1977, Captain Edward Sechrest, a Vietnam historical who became once assigned to the Navy Recruiting Inform, coined the duration of time “Golden Thirteen,” rather of ingenious PR that gave the neighborhood a catchy nickname the Navy would perhaps well order to tout their achievements.

Their annual reunions garnered some press nonetheless, as the males began to pass, their tale extinct from memory. Few this day are attentive to the Golden Thirteen or their contribution to the Navy and the nation. Mild, the lessons they imparted are extra resonant than ever sooner than. At a time of nationwide trial, the Golden Thirteen remind us that our skill for fulfillment isn’t restricted by politics or preconceived notions, that heroes aren’t handiest be aware in cockpits and tanks and that, normally, essentially the most attention-grabbing victories for Democracy are these won off the war field.

Dan C. Goldberg, a journalist for Politico, is the author of The Golden Thirteen: How Unlit Males Won the Accurate to Wear Navy Gold, available now from Beacon Press.

Come by our History E-newsletter. Attach this day’s news in context and price highlights from the archives.


For your security, now we have despatched a affirmation email to the deal with you entered. Click on the hyperlink to substantiate your subscription and inaugurate receiving our newsletters. If you happen to produce now not fetch the affirmation inner 10 minutes, please test your unsolicited mail folder.

Contact us at [email protected].

Tags:, , , ,