African-Americans make a significant contribution to the Navy mission, serving not only as military leaders, engineers, planners, contract specialists, but also as plumbers, electricians, and repairman. The success of African-Americans in today’s Navy is a result of not only their hard work, but is also a tribute to the dreams, character, and determination of those that preceded them, men such as Charles Atlee, Frank Warren, and John Mathews. Their ability to succeed in an era of few opportunities demonstrated to those at the Naval Powder Factory that the color of one’s skin should not deter a man or woman from contributing to the success of the Navy mission.
This success did not come easily or quickly. As a result of the Civil War and after the Emancipation Proclamation, many residents of southern Charles County became isolated and faced with poverty. Without significant infrastructure and industrial support, many of the residents relied on share cropping, farming their own small plot of land, and fishing the Potomac River in order to make a living. Many of the freemen had no land or any substantial means of making a living. Even with slavery abolished, ordinary African-Americans continued to suffer from the toll of segregation and lack of opportunities when the Navy arrived in the area.
In 1890, the U.S. Navy bought property in order to support the new naval proving ground. The location presented a significant challenge in finding sufficient labor to transform the swamp into a working installation. This challenge of hiring and keeping laborers persisted for the first two decades of the Navy’s occupation in the area. Many of the African-Americans hired in the early days at the proving grounds provided unskilled labor for such tasks as moving ordnance, retrieving ordnance, back stop construction, farming, manual labor and grounds maintenance.
During World War 2, the military services were still segregated and African-Americans were not allowed to achieve a technical rating. However, the labor shortage of World War 2 forced the workers the Powder Factory to put aside segregation in the production plant and work side by side on the factory’s Powder Line. Working together to produce munitions in support of the war was one thing, but segregation was still prevalent on the Navy installation. As a result of the demands of World War 2, the Navy came to recognize the capabilities of black employees when it came to powder production. With the Navy’s approval, African-Americans were beginning to put aside their coveralls and don laboratory coats. Many became employed as chemists and lab assistants, providing valuable support to the mission.
The Navy struggled for years to find sufficient labor to support the installation mission. The lack of housing and schools kept many men from settling in Indian Head. Village Green Housing was approved in 1919 by the U.S. Housing Corporation as the first “planned” community, complete with post office, single family homes, paved streets and a school, but this community was off-limits to blacks. In an effort to retain additional black laborers, the Navy built a segregated planned community, complete with housing, common area, and a school. Located on Cornwallis Point, just south of the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force, the black residents resided on what was known as Swann Court. Swann Court was named for one of the farms owned by an African-American-a rare occurrence at that time-that the Navy bought when they expanded the Powder Factory in 1900. It had been reported that school at Swann Court at one time had as many as nineteen children in attendance.
The recognition of the black workers at Indian Head was evident in a 1943 “Smokeless Flashes” newspaper article that headlined “Outstanding Negro Employees of the Naval Powder Factory”. This type of positive publicity for blacks was a milestone in the time of segregation. The three men, Charles Atlee, Frank Warren, and John Mathews, came to the Powder Factory between 1909 and 1919 as common laborers. Mr. Atlee had worked at the installation in 1909, and 36 years later was in charge of the Shipping Section. This section was in charge of all the miscellaneous shipments leaving the station. He also supervised several employees. Mr. Frank Warren started his career in 1916, also as a laborer, and in 1943 was working as a messenger for the Supply Department. John Mathews joined the Powder Factory in 1915 as a laborer. After a serving in the Army in from 1918 through 1919, he returned to work at the Powder Factory. Mr. Mathews worked at the yards and docks, as well as at the east battery bomb proof area, and completed his career working in the main office of the Powder Factory.
During World War 2, tensions rose among the enlisted ranks of the Navy personnel due to the fact that “Negro’s are not assigned to general service billets at sea and white personnel resent the fact the Negro’s have been given less hazardous assignments.” It is well documented that blacks wanted to be part of combat activities and were given opportunities in the Air Force and Army Air Corps. Although segregated, all-black combat units such as the U.S. Army Air Corps “Tuskegee Airmen” of the 332nd Fighter Group became part of the 15th Air Force, flying ground support missions over Anzio and escorting bombers on missions over Southern Italy. The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties May 1943 and June 1945. Bomber crews often requested to be escorted by these “Redtails,” a nicknamed acquired from the painted tails of Tuskegee fighter planes. Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen died in combat. The Army’s 761st Tank Battalion fought with Patton’s Third Army. They spent 183 days in combat and were credited with capturing 30 major towns in France, Belgium, and Germany. Only one black division saw infantry combat in Europe - the 92nd Infantry Division. The 92nd, which had fought in France during World War 1, was once again activated in 1942 and went into action in Italy in the summer of 1944. The unit continued a long and proud tradition by retaining the buffalo as its divisional symbol. Its circular shoulder patch, which featured a black buffalo on an olive drab background, was called The Buffalo. The nickname “Buffalo Soldier” dates back to the late 1860s, when black soldiers volunteered for duty in the American West. The American Indians, who regarded the new threat as “black white men,” coined the term “Buffalo Soldier” out of respect for a worthy enemy.
At Indian Head, this separation of hazardous duty was not observed at the Powder Factory. History records that both black and white personnel together worked all aspects of the powder line and were a critical component in ensuring that powder, rockets and the infamous bazooka was provided to the troops.
Although the United States Armed Forces were officially segregated until 1948, World War 2 laid the foundation for post-war integration of the military. In 1941 fewer than 4,000 African Americans were serving in the military and only twelve African-Americans had become officers. By 1945, more than 1.2 million African-Americans would be serving in uniform on the Home Front, in Europe, and the Pacific (including thousands of African-American women in the Women’s auxiliaries).
On June 25, 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 prohibiting discrimination in the defense industry and created the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) to monitor hiring practices. Although the military remained segregated, World War II brought about new jobs and opportunities for African-Americans. This played a role in increasing the opportunities for blacks at Indian Head. In 1948, President Truman led the way for desegregation within the Department of Defense by signing Executive Order 9981, which declared “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin. This policy shall be put into effect as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale.”
The 1950’s and 1960’s continued to see an increase in recognition of the responsibilities of black employees at Indian Head. Unlike the 1940’s, where recognition was non-existent in the base newspaper, the tide had begun to change. In 1954, Mr. Holmes Hansford was sponsored by the Naval Powder Factory as a physical scientist enrolled in the installations professional training program which included enrollment in George Washington University. During this same time period, African-American women were noted for their ability to do “a man’s job”, performing a large portion of the work in the Packing and Blending services. A strenuous and dangerous job, the women performed their work in a professional and efficient manner. In the 1960’s, Indian Head began an intern program that provided training opportunities to several local, black high school students. Soon after, African-American architects and engineers were employed working for the Public Works Department, and scientists, lab technicians, and lead technicians were working in research and development and at the plants.
Today, African-Americans make a significant contribution to the Navy mission in a wide variety of career paths, from plumbers and electricians to engineers, planners, and contract specialists, as well as in all levels of military leadership. Their ability to succeed in an era of few opportunities demonstrated to those at the Naval Powder Factory that the color of one’s skin should not deter a man or woman from contributing to the success of the Navy mission. The success of African-Americans in today’s Navy is a result of both the opportunities offered by the United States Navy, as well as the character and determination they have shown over the decades.