The month of February has been observed nationally as African American/Black History Month since 1976. It’s a month to celebrate and honor the brave men and women in the black community who did, and continue to, push the status quo. The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) will honor the brave men of “The Golden 13,” along with all the other men and women who have served their country, during a ceremony scheduled for February 23.
The story of the first black officers to serve in the Navy is documented in the book, “The Golden Thirteen, Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers”
It was during February, in the year 1944, when 16 black Sailors pushed the limits and endured a majority of the training that would qualify them as the first black naval officers.
The fight against fascism was the predominant motive for the fight overseas during the second World War, but it was also happening in a time when discrimination was reaching a peak back in the United States.
Black civic leaders took to the campaign, Double Victory: victory over fascism abroad and victory over discrimination at home, a program that started in 1942.This new found fight against an old problem was brought to light by way of an executive order signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in June of 1941. Order number 8802 prohibited racial discrimination in any government agency. Although this by no means ended the prejudice occurring across the country, it was the first stepping stone for the brave men of the Golden 13 to change the course of Navy history.
A compressed multi-month officer training class comprised of 16 black Sailors started in January of 1944. These were the first men of color to endure the officer training program of its time, and it didn’t happen without a number of hurdles along the way.
“We had to learn vicariously rather than through actual experience,” said Samuel E. Barnes, a member of the original 13. “We worked constantly at a fast pace, because we were given an intensive course.”
The original 16 were taught everything from gunnery and aircraft recognition to seamanship and survival techniques from the seclusion of their own barracks. Never even boarding a ship, they were given training equivalent to a full semester at the Naval Academy from the months of January to March.
“We were under a lot of pressure, and we had to operate as controlled individuals,” said James E. Hair, a member of the Golden 13. “We would get many insults, and it was understood that if we reported any incidents the white trainees would get disciplined, but we might get thrown out.”
In interviews, the Golden 13 often talked about how much they relied on each other and would pass or fail as a group. They did everything they could to not compete but to succeed as a unit.
“We were determined not to fail and followed the motto, all for one, and one for all,” said Barnes. “We knew that we were the foot in the door for many other black Sailors, and we were determined not to be the ones who were responsible for having that foot removed.”
Their short two months of training led up to a final exam in which the class of 16 scored an average of 3.89 out of 4.0, not once but 3 times, a final result that has yet to be broken. It was in March of 1944 when 13 of the original 16 were commissioned as officers, including one warrant officer.
However, this commissioning was not the end of the discrimination and segregation they faced. Many of the 13 went to commands where they were still treated as lesser individuals because of the color of their skin, despite graduating and breaking records while doing it. Some were sent to command divisions of all black Sailors, because they still weren’t thought of as being equal to their white counterparts.
“I felt that the Navy didn’t know what to do with us, and they were trying to make sure that we weren’t pushed into any situations where we couldn’t extricate ourselves,” said Graham E. Martin, a member of the 13. “I don’t know whether they were trying to protect us or hold us back.”
In most cases, the 13 were still not welcomed inside the previously all-white officer’s clubs at their various commands. They recalled the slow acceptance of their presence within the clubs. At first, most white officers would walk out as soon as one of the new black officers walked in.
Barnes recalled over time that the prejudice waned, and the white officers realized the new officers weren’t as bad as they previously thought.
“No one today is facing the issues that the Golden 13 had to face because of what they did for us,” said Lt. j.g. Kenneth Bradley, a Sailor on board Nimitz, and a native of Champaign, Ill.
Bradley also talked about the homage that should be paid to the original class of 16 in 1944.
“A lot of times today we use excuses like, oh they’re doing this to me or this system or person is doing this to me,” said Bradley. “Well, the Golden 13 weathered it when they jumped over the hurdles and through the obstacles to achieve their goals, because they were passionate about it. I think that’s something everyone can learn from.”
The Golden 13 were pioneers of their time. Although only one of the 13 made a career in the Navy, the rest went forward and left their mark in the civilian world with various occupations in teaching, engineering, business, social work and law. They rose up in a time when equality was far removed from all sanctions of life in the United States, but they proved to not only the Navy, but the entire world that regardless of race, color or religion, all individuals are capable of achieving results when most people just see a challenge. They showed people what it meant to give future generations a foothold and continue making a difference.
Story by MCSN Cole Schroeder