Here’s something to think about during this Memorial Day weekend.
In 1877, the first black man graduated the United States Military Academy at West Point. In 1940, the Army promoted a black to the rank of general. But the U.S. Navy was more bound to tradition. At the beginning of World War II, African Americans were still not allowed to enlist in the Navy’s general service. They were given the jobs of cooks and waiters to serve whites.
Then in early 1944, after prolonged pressure from civil rights leaders and the black press, the Navy hand-picked 16 enlistees for Officer Candidate School. In March 1944, 12 were commissioned as officers and one became a warrant officer.
So why haven’t you heard of this before? This was such a radical step for the Navy that this has never been publicized. During training, the men were completely segregated, even from the black enlisted, and on a strict daily schedule. They were ordered to tell no one except their families. At the end of their training, their exam scores were so high they were ordered to take the exams again because some in Washington didn’t believe the results (they did even better the second time). No official reason was ever given for not commissioning all 16 of them, although by remarkable coincidence their class completion rate matched that of white officers.
Their success at being commissioned was also relative, as racial discrimination was still rampant. They were prohibited from joining officers’ clubs, whites refused to salute them, and they were given make-work jobs. Not one got into combat.
But now, far too late, their story is being told in The Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold by Dan C. Goldberg (https://www.amazon.com/Golden-Thirteen-Black-Right-Wear/dp/080702158X/ref=sr_1_1?).
It’s another reason to celebrate Memorial Day.
Adapted from “How the U.S. Navy’s First Black Officers Helped Reshape the American Military” by Dan C. Goldberg (https://time.com/5838843/us-navy-integration-world-war-ii/?)