For 146 years, the U.S. Navy had no Black officers until 13 Black men—many from Chicago —endured the pain and humiliation of segregation to blaze the trail for thousands of Black sailors. On the 75th anniversary of their historic achievement on a naval base, they remain forgotten unsung heroes who served a country that gave them little respect.
By Erick Johnson
Spring was settling in Chicago in March 1944. In Waukegan, some 41 miles north of the city, a historic event broke a racial barrier that had existed for 146 years in the U.S. Navy. Thirteen Black sailors successfully navigated through the pain and humiliation of racism and segregation to become the first Black commissioned officers in the Navy. They eventually became known as the “Golden Thirteen.”
In their crisp naval uniforms, they turned heads, erased doubts and sparked a movement that angered many whites. On top of the world, they served a country that still hated them as they blazed the trail for thousands of future sailors of color. On the 75th anniversary of their historic achievement, they remain unsung, forgotten heroes whose achievement changed the Navy and countless lives of Blacks forever.
This Memorial Day weekend, thousands will attend parades and ceremonies to remember and honor the lives of the men and women who sacrificed and served their country. Few will remember the contributions of a group of Blacks who fought their own country for the right to serve their homeland with the same respect and dignity as anyone else.
It was a time when America’s military branches were segregated thanks to President Woodrow Wilson, who, during World War I, created the draft and called it, “Selective Service” to inspire men to sign up to serve their country. Wilson also declared Jim Crow the law of the land, segregating the military branches, parks, schools, businesses and neighborhoods across the country. During Wilson’s presidency in 1915, “Birth of a Nation,” a movie that had been criticized for perpetuating stereotypes of Black men, was shown in the White House’s East Room.
Under the Wilson administration, there were very few Blacks serving in the Navy. In August 1919, the Navy stopped enlisting Blacks, according to author Paul Stillwell’s “The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers.” By 1932, Blacks made up only .55 percent of the enlisted force in the Navy, according to Stillwell.
Most Black sailors who did serve in the Navy were messmen, entry-level positions that involved cleaning up busy kitchens and eating areas that were often hard to keep clean. Messmen also served as waiters and were responsible for maintaining a sufficient supply of clean linen and utensils for chefs. It was a job that kept them on their feet constantly, but gave them little respect among white sailors.
Then-Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was opposed to allowing Black and white sailors to train and live together while they served their country.
Knox was also opposed to having Black officers.
The Navy held firm to not allowing Black sailors into ratings other than messmen. They feared that if Blacks advanced to officer status, they would not be strong leaders over their subordinate white sailors. Blacks who had risen to chief steward still had no authority over lower-rated enlisted white men in the general services.
In the 1930s, Congress appointed two Black civilians as midshipmen to the prestigious U.S. Naval Academy, but white officers at Annapolis soon encouraged them to seek careers in other fields.
In 1941, a committee that was established to investigate opportunities for Blacks and the Marine Corps concluded that no changes needed to be instituted with regard to race.
Things began to change when the NAACP and other outside organizations began pressuring President Franklin D. Roosevelt to boost opportunities for Blacks in the Navy. In January 1942, Roosevelt began to pressure Knox into putting Black sailors in higher positions than messmen. On April 7, 1942, the Navy agre- ed to begin accepting Blacks for general service on June 1 of that year. These new recruits were still not allowed to serve on ships, but only in small defense crafts. Many Blacks would continue to serve as messmen.
On July 1, 1943, the Navy created the V-12 program to beef up its training of officers for wartime service. The college-oriented program combined education with officer training. There was a push to get Blacks in the program, but Knox resisted. In late March that year, President Roosevelt directed Knox to include Blacks in their testing for the V-12 program.
It was a change in Navy policy that was kept extremely low-key. There were no publicity campaigns or newspaper advertisements, leaving many organizations unaware of the historic change. A number of Blacks had excellent scores and were admitted. In November, Samuel Gravely, Jr. was among the V-12 graduates, later becoming the Navy’s first Black admiral in 1971.
The Golden Thirteen came about when Civil Rights pioneer, Mary McLeod Bethune, convinced President Roosevelt to have Black officers in the Navy, according to Captain Roosevelt “Rick” Wright, a Navy historian who served 22 years in the military, including the Army and the Navy. He serves on the board of directors at the National Naval Officers Association, an organization of Black members who have served in the Navy and U.S. Coast Guard.
Sixteen Blacks were chosen for V-12 training. Navy officials picked extra men to reach the desired total of 12. Several of the 16 men had college degrees and were lawyers, athletes and teachers.
Many of those chosen were either born or raised in Chicago, including: Jesse Arbor, who worked as a Pullman car porter and as doorman at the defunct Chicago Beach Hotel in Hyde Park; Reginald Goodwin, who became a successful attorney after he retired from the Navy; John W. Reagan, who graduated from Lindblom High School in Englewood; Frank E. Sublett Jr., who grew up in suburban Highland Park and Glencoe on Chicago’s North Shore; Lewis Williams, a social worker; and William White, a U.S. judge who graduated from Hyde Park High School and earned both a bachelors and a law degree from the University of Chicago by 1937.
Other Golden Thirteen members included: James E. Hare, Samuel E. Barnes, George C. Cooper, Dennis Nelson, Warrant Officer Charles Lear, Phillip G. Barnes, and Dalton Baugh.
There is little information available about the lives of many members of the Golden Thirteen. The Navy has photos and some data, but there is no data available at the U.S. Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
For this story, the Crusader relied on information from Stillwell’s book, which was written with the help of James E. Hare, Jr., the son of one of the members of the Golden Thirteen. The book, published in 1993, includes the stories of eight of the Black naval officers, who give rare insights to their experiences before and after their historic achievement.
In January 1944, the men began their training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Waukegan, IL. They were confined to the all-Black training facility Camp Robert Smalls, named after an escaped slave from South Carolina who had been a hero in the Navy during the Civil War. The 16 Black recruits trained under Commander Daniel Armstrong, whose father founded the HBCU Hampton University in Hampton, VA.
For the next three months, the men would spend long hours studying navigation, gunnery, aircraft recognition, naval history, Morse code and survival techniques. In Stillwell’s book, Samuel Barnes said during training the men forged a strong bond.
“At an early meeting, while discussing our studies, we decided that whatever knowledge any one of us had on a given topic would be shared with everyone else. We decided not to compete with other members of the group, so we had many study sessions together. We were determined to succeed in spite of the burdens that would be placed on us. 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 the foot removed.”
There were some intense moments. One Black sailor had vitiligo, a skin disease in Blacks that causes patches of skin with no pigmentation. During a strip down, a group of white sailors laughed and picked at a Black sailor whose genitals were half-white and half-black. To break the tension in the room, the officer candidate made light of the situation by saying he was raised in a white neighborhood. The Black sailors remained angry, but went back to work without retaliating.
“We were under a lot of pressure during training,” Hare told Stillwell. “We were cooped up in that barracks (sic) almost all the time, and we knew we had to make it. Our goal in this class took precedence over Jim Crowism, racism and harassment, and insults. We had to operate as controlled individuals. We would get many, many insults.”
All 16 recruits passed the training, but only 13 were commissioned as officers. There were no formal graduation ceremonies because Navy officials wanted to keep the achievement low-key to avoid publicity that would attract more Black recruits.
Twelve Black recruits were commissioned as ensigns, an officer who ranks below a lieutenant and higher than a chief warrant officer. Lear was commissioned as a warrant officer. The three other trainees who did not make it pursued other careers. The class grade-point average during graduation was 3.89.
“To this day, those guys had the highest grade-point average than any graduation class of any officers in Great Lakes,” said Captain Wright.
According to Stillwell, some 2.5 million men were serving the Navy that month. About 100,000 sailors and recruits flooded the Great Lakes base, and over 3,000 officers were commissioned in the first six months of 1944 alone. Those figures made the achievement of just 13 Black naval officers extraordinary.
After they were commissioned as naval officers, the men went to a tailor in Chicago to be fitted for their uniforms. Dennis Nelson, the most flamboyant member of the group, bought the optional naval officer cape. The group then went to the Palmer House Hotel in the Loop and had “dinner with all the trimmings,” as Reagan described it. Nelson pulled out a cigar and asked a white lady nearby if he could smoke.
She said, “I don’t give a damn if you burn.”
After they were commissioned, the 13 men were known as those “Negro naval officers” or later, as “those Black naval officers.” They had no identity until the 1970s when a Captain Edward Secrest learned about the group and coined the term, “Golden Thirteen.” They angered many with their skin color, but their status as naval officers made white sailors and civilians hate them even more.
During training, the men weren’t allowed inside the elite Great Lakes Naval Club—the social gathering place for white officers—despite their status. When Samuel Barnes entered the Naval Club in Okinawa, Japan—months after he was commissioned—nearly all the white officers got up and walked out.
The Black naval officers were never assigned on ships, like their white counterparts. Initially, they were forced to follow white officers of the same rank all day, while acting as junior officers.
On the streets and trains in Chicago, whites often stopped and stared at them. Most had never seen a Black man in a naval officer’s uniform. Since 1798, the Navy had never had a full, active duty, Black naval officer.
Graham Martin told Stillwell that while he was on a naval base after he was commissioned, a white sailor did not salute him when he walked by. He called the sailor and asked why he did not salute an officer. The sailor did not answer. Martin took off his hat and held it out in front of him and said, “Now, salute the insignia of the United States Navy.”
The white sailor saluted and said smartly, “But you do understand that I’m not saluting you.”
In Newport News, VA, a passerby approached George Cooper, his wife and daughter on the street and said, “You Black son of a bitch, I read about you guys, but I never thought I’d meet one.”
In Oxnard, CA, Reagan called the naval base after a waiter in a restaurant wanted to seat him in the back, near the kitchen. A white officer showed up and reminded the establishment how much business it received from the naval base nearby. Reagan got the seat he wanted.
None of the members of the Golden Thirteen made a career in the Navy. They were briefly together in 1944, but went their separate ways on assignments after they became naval officers.
For the next several decades, they would come back and reminisce during reunions sponsored by the Navy. All 13 members of the Golden Thirteen are gone. The last surviving member, Frank E. Sublett, died in 2006.
“Their incredible leadership and commission in the Navy laid the foundation that produced admirals, officers and other leaders in the military,” Captain Wright said.
Since 1994, thousands of Blacks have made gains while serving in the Navy. In 1949, Wesley A. Brown became the first Black graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. William Goines became the first Black Navy Seal, a military team created by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.
Samuel L. Gravely Jr. was promoted to rear admiral in July 1971, making him the first African American to reach flag officer rank of admiral. In 1996, Admiral J. Paul Reason became the Navy’s first African-American four-star admiral on November 15, 1996. Rear Admiral Lillian E. Fishburne became the first African-American woman Navy flag officer in February 1998. There are at least 115 African-American male captains and 22 female captains. On the enlisted side, there are 268 male master chiefs and 15 female master chiefs.
In 1987, Recruit Training Command cut the ribbon for the “Golden Thirteen” Recruit Inprocessing Center. A plaque that bears the name of all 13 members remains on the building. The facility is the location where recruits experience their first “Night of Arrival,” after they report to boot camp. Here, they receive their initial issue of uniform items, haircuts and begin the civilian to Sailor transformation process.
Several months ago, exactly 75 years from the historic V-12 achievement, the National Museum of the American Sailor in Great Lakes removed the Golden Thirteen exhibit because of renovations, according to Tricia Runzel, curator of Education at the museum.
Runzel said there are some programs that honor the memory of the Golden Thirteen, but said there will be no ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the historic achievement of the group.