February is African American History month, but the Navy Museum brings that history alive through the entire year.
The National Museum of the U.S. Navy, located at the Washington Navy Yard, has various artifacts and exhibits dedicated to the actions of African-American Sailors throughout the nation’s history on display year-round. The exhibits ensure that these brave servicemembers’ contributions are remembered beyond February.
“African-American History Month is very important because it allows us to give pause and remember the sacrifices and struggles of those in the African-American community, but also to ignite interest in the history of the African-American community,” said Dr. Regina Akers, historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command. “The important thing to do is to take that interest past February 28th, and continue it through the year.”
The Navy Museum does just that with exhibits such as the one dedicated to Robert Smalls. Under glass is a display of a gold medal presented to him by the African-American community of New York, and a description of his heroics during the American Civil War. In the early morning of May 13, 1862, Smalls escaped his handlers and commandeered the Confederate Army steamer “Planter,” piloting it out of the heavily guarded port of Charleston, S.C., to the safety of the Union Fleet.
Other exhibits include the service of African-Americans in Navy exploration. As part of their “Polar Exploration” installation, the museum dedicates space to the contributions of Matthew Henson to Robert Perry’s polar expeditions. Henson was the only African-American on the expeditions and was with Perry the day he claimed to have reached the North Pole, April 7, 1909. He proved indispensible to the expeditions’ success. He became fluent the Inuit’s language, gaining their trust and aid. He also maintained expedition equipment, trained sled dogs, and built sledges that were used in the harsh arctic environment.
Further along is the Navy Museum’s exhibit on Atlantic patrols during World War II. Here a portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the mostly African-American crews of USS Mason (DE-529) and USS PC-1264, the only two ships to have predominantly African-American enlisted crews. Though still serving under segregation at the time, their dedicated service during anti-submarine patrols in the European Theater of Operations are honored.
Also featured in the museum’s collection are portraits and depictions featuring prominent African-Americans. Among them are a painting of a U.S. Navy Special Training Unit run by and for African-American Sailors during World War II, and a portrait of Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate (MDV) Carl Brashear. Brashear is well known for being the U.S. Navy’s first African-American Master Diver and the first diver to ever recertify as an amputee, often dealing with discrimination throughout his career.
Akers said that despite racial prejudices throughout the nation’s history, the U.S. military often opened their ranks to African-American servicemembers before social changes were made.
“What you’ll see throughout history is that need will always supersede desire, which is why the military is often at the forefront of integration,” said Akers. She said that while many African-Americans faced daunting, and often demeaning, positions in the military, progress was made with each generation. “With many of these well-known African-American groundbreakers, you’ll hear them speak of mentorship; of taking the hardships they faced, as well as the lessons taught by those who took the time to mentor them, and passing that on in their leadership.”
African-Americans continue to make contributions to the Navy’s history today. Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Installations and Environment B. J. Penn, a retired naval aviator, was the first African-American to serve as the Acting Secretary of the Navy in 2009. Vice Adm. Melvin L. Williams and Rear Adm. Victor Guillory commanded the Navy’s Second and Fourth Fleets respectively in 2009, the first time that two African Americans had such commands. And Vice Adm. Michelle Janine Howard became the first African-American female to achieve three-star rank in 2012, and in 1999 was the first to command a U.S. Navy warship, USS Rushmore (LPD-47).
For more information about African- American contributions to the U.S. Navy, visit www.history.navy.mil, go to “Resources and Research” and click “Diversity.”
This story is part two of a two-part series on African-American History Month.