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Wesley A. Brown (1927-2012) died May 22 this year.  He was the first African-American to graduate from Annapolis Naval Academy.  Five previous African-Americans had been enrolled at the academy, but they had been unable to endure the vile hazing and prejudice that was meted out to them by the almost entirely white institution.

      Wesley A. Brown  breaking ground at the Naval Academy
      for the Wesley A. Brown Field House, 25 Mar 2006.
      Academy commandant Capt. Bruce E. Grooms is on left.
Brown graduated from the Naval Academy in 1949, having been nominated to attend by the flamboyant Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr..  Brown served for 20 years in the Navy's Civil Engineer Corps, retiring in 1969 with the rank of Lieutenant Commander.  A native of the District of Columbia, Brown later joined the faculty of Howard University and assisted DC Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton with the selection of her nominees to the service academies.  

Back in 1945, when Brown entered Annapolis, the Navy was an extremely segregated service.  It was not until 1944 that the first African-Americans were commissioned as naval officers, these were called the Golden Thirteen.  

While there was a ship or two that had a predominantly African-American crew, under white officers, the enlisted ranks of approximately 100,000 African-Americans were generally allocated to menial (but not necessarily easy or safe) tasks such as stevedoring, as were, in command positions, the Golden Thirteen who were not allowed to command ships.  

On board ships the enlisted African-Americans were limited to work as mess attendants,  and they were known as "mess boys" as one sees dramatized in The Caine Mutiny.  And stevedoring was not necessarily safe work -- as shown by the 1944 Port Chicago disaster where the majority of the 320 men killed were African-Americans loading munitions.

At the very top of the Navy was Ernest J. King, a competent but not well-liked officer who was also a racist, whether more or less than others of his station isn't quite clear.  But the navy's relegation of blacks to menial roles certainly suited him well.  (Source: this thesis).

It's the steady dedication of people like Wesley A. Brown, the Golden Thirteen, and many others like them who fortunately changed our Navy so that now, while it's not perfect, it's a least a much more fair place for all people to advance in the service of our country.

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