Inside Tradition of Blacks and Military Service

Today, we kick off a new series on African Americans in the military with a look at how the relationship between blacks and military has evolved over history. Farai Chideya is joined by John Sherwood — a historian with the U.S. Naval Historical Center and author of Black Sailor, White Navy — and Gregory Black, a retired Navy commander and creator of the Web site BlackMilitaryWorld.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today, we begin a new series called African-Americans in the military. All month long, we'll be covering issues surrounding black men and women in the armed forces. Now, black Americans have a long history with the military from the earliest colonial battles to the Iraq war, and that very old story is a collage of discrimination, social justice and patriotism. How has the relationship between blacks in the service evolved?

Today, we've got two people who can help us explore that question. John Sherwood is a historian with the U.S. Naval Historical Center. He's also author of "Black Sailor, White Navy." And Gregory Black is a retired Navy commander. He also runs the Web site blackmilitaryworld.com. Welcome, gentlemen.

Dr. JOHN SHERWOOD (Historian, U.S. Naval Historical Center; Author "Black Sailor, White Navy"): Thank you.

Commander GREGORY BLACK (Retired Navy Commander; Founder, blackmilitaryworld.com): Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So, Commander Black, you went to college, you got a job, but that didn't cut it for you. Why the Navy?

Commander BLACK: Well, actually, I came from a Navy family. My father was in the Navy during the Korean war, well, I have a couple of uncles that were in the Navy, and my brother was in the Navy. So I had a difficult time after I graduated from college in the job market, so I talked to a Navy recruiter and, you know, he offered me an opportunity to go to Officers School since I had a degree, and it really turned out great for me. I have spent 21 years as a Navy deep-sea diver, I had a great time, and so I had a very positive experience with the military.

CHIDEYA: Now, did you ever talk with your father about race relations? How they were when you served compared to when he served?

Commander BLACK: No, actually, my father didn't have - well, he was stationed in Alaska on a ship, and he never talked much about any racial issues or any problems with segregation. I think it was something that was fairly common back then. And for the most part, they weren't even aware of some of the incidences because it was just the way things were. But…

CHIDEYA: What about yourself?

Commander BLACK: Now, actually, I - the same thing, I - when I went to dive school, I was actually the third black diving officer in the history of the Navy, and when I first came into that field, of course, that was the field that Carl Brashear, the man - the diver who was the subject of the movie "Men of Honor." Now, he was the pioneer and he experienced a lot of racism, and a lot of that was still around when I came into the military as a diver. But for the most part, I never had any real problems with racism or - and I found that the military was a fairly leveled playing field.

CHIDEYA: John, you did document some of the issues that black sailors have had. Can you give us a very brief look at some of those?

Dr. SHERWOOD: Yes. Before 1972, the Navy suffered from institutional racism, and by that what I mean is racism endemic in the whole structure of the Navy. Now, it wasn't until 1972 that the CNO at the time, Admiral Zumwalt, recognized the problem and started to change the Navy and created the Navy that Commander Black talks about.

CHIDEYA: I'm assuming by CNO you mean chief naval officer?

Dr. SHERWOOD: Of the Naval - Chief of Naval Operations.

CHIDEYA: Okay.

Dr. SHERWOOD: He's the top uniformed official in the Navy.

In the 20th century, about 5.5 percent of the Navy in World War II was African-American. However, most of those people served in segregated circumstances and only a fraction of that number were officers. In fact, only 64 officers were commissioned during World War II.

Some of the things the African-Americans had to do was move munitions at depots. And in 1944, a depot called Port Chicago near San Francisco exploded, killing 320 black sailors. Two hundred and fifty-eight black sailors decided that they had had enough and they went on strike and protested the conditions. These people were dishonorably discharged. In…

CHIDEYA: And that was a huge historical moment where, in essence, there was a form of rebellion by these black soldiers. And I understand - we covered this case - that there was - it took years to really reevaluate this historical moment.

I want to go back to Commander Black for a second before I continue with you, John. Did it ever occur to you that the military was going to be a place that was less than optimal for black men? Did you ever have any concerns; did you ever discuss this with your friends? I mean, when you enlisted, what were the discussions you had with your friends about whether or not this was a good path for black men?

Commander BLACK: Well, actually, I came in right at the end of the Vietnam War, and most of my friends were - and most of the people that I knew, actually, were pretty much anti-military as a result of the war. So most of the feedback that I got was more less about me not serving in the military as opposed to serving as a black man, because at that time, African-Americans looked at the military as a source of opportunity and - which is the reason why I talked to the recruiter in the first place.

So, you know, I - when I came into the military, I didn't, you know, I didn't think much about racism. I was thinking more about opportunity and a chance to continue my education.

CHIDEYA: Now, John, when you look at the overview of the history of the military - obviously, you're a specialist in dealing with the naval history -There - the military has been integrated well under a century. What bumps in the road have there been and how well has the military moved forward?

Dr. SHERWOOD: Well, the integration order was in 1948. Now, the first service to integrate was the Air Force; that occurred in 1949. That immediately spurred about 4,000 African-Americans to join the Air Force bringing the total number to about 25,000. Then you had the Korean war, and what happened in the Korean war was quite interesting. Initially, Army unites were segregated, and one unit at the 24th Infantry Regiment performed horribly.

And the - actually, the poor performance of that unit convinced the Army that it had to integrate for the sake of combat performance. The brass believed that by integrating, they could create a better army. So the ground services integrated shortly - during the Korean war and - but the Navy was behind.

During the Cold War, you had a draft and as a consequence, the Navy had the pick of the crop as far as recruiting was concerned. Any one who was bright, who wanted to avoid the draft, and not have to serve on the ground joined the Navy. So as a consequence for most of the Vietnam War, the Navy didn't have problems because there weren't that many African-Americans in the Navy. In fact, in '71, only 5.3 percent of the Navy was African-American, and only about 0.7 percent of the officers were African-American. Now…

CHIDEYA: John, unfortunately, we have to wrap this up. What do you think in terms of the historical comparison between the armed services as they were integrating and now? Does there seem to be wide satisfaction?

Dr. SHERWOOD: Right now, there is wide satisfaction. The Navy is one of the best places to work in the world as far as equal opportunity. It's a place where whites regularly work for blacks and do so happily in every warfare community; at every level of the chain of command. And that's thanks to Admiral Zumwalt and people like Commander Black - pioneers who made this possible.

CHIDEYA: Commander, one last question, you are a pro-military, but some African-Americans are hesitant to join now, and there's been a drop in enlistment and reenlistment. If you were a young man out of college today, would you sign up?

Commander BLACK: Oh, yes. I would definitely consider the military. Of course, my first choice - and I always tell the young people - the first choice should be to go to college and continue your education. But if you can't go to college or don't have the resources or the grades, the military is a great opportunity because you can continue to grow and also, you can continue to - continue your education through the military. And I think the military is a great place, once again, if you don't have the resources for college. So that's what I would tell the young person today, but just be smart about what you go into. There is a lot of opportunity in the military in all branches, so just be smart and understand what you're getting yourself into.

CHIDEYA: Well, John Sherwood, Commander Black, thank you both for joining us.

Dr. SHERWOOD: Thank you.

Commander BLACK: Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: John Sherwood is a historian with the U.S. Naval Historical Center, and he is also the author of "Black Sailor, White Navy." He joined us from our NPR headquarters. And Gregory Black is a retired Navy commander and creator of the Web site, blackmilitaryworld.com.

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