Here’s the little known history of African American Coast Guardsmen

(Photo: US Coast Guard)

The history of African-American participation in the Coast Guard and its predecessor services dates back to the very founding of the service in 1790. In 228 years of Coast Guard history, African-Americans were the first minority group to serve; however, as a minority, African-Americans have achieved the greatest progress over the last 100 years.

Discrimination against minorities, such as African-Americans, gradually began to decline in the early 20th century. At that time, the all-black Pea Island Lifesaving Station stood as a symbol of minority service in a predominantly white agency. The African-American Berry family saw over 20 family members serve, starting with the Lifesaving Service in 1897, with approximately 400 years of total career service between several family members. At the same time, Lighthouse Service lightships and lighthouses experienced a greater degree of integration than ever before, with some installations employing more than 50 percent minority crews.

From 1919 to 1925, the service stationed paddlewheel cutters on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to provide assistance during the seasonal floods that historically plagued those waterways. Cutter Yocona of Vicksburg, Mississippi, served as a minority highlight of the Interwar Period. With the exception of officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), the enlisted crew was entirely African-American, including petty officers in every rating. Yocona was one of the first integrated ships in U.S. history; however, the service never recognized Yocona as an experiment in desegregation. More than likely, the service hired the best-qualified watermen in the area without intending the cutter to serve as an example of racial integration. Later, in World War II, the U.S. Navy’s first desegregated ships employed this same system of white officers and NCOs, with black enlisted men while the war’s desegregated Coast Guard cutters included African-Americans in both senior enlisted and officer ranks.

The 1920s also saw minorities entering officer and command positions afloat. In 1928, Petty Officer 1st Class Clarence Samuels, a boatswain’s mate, assumed command of the 67-foot cutter AB-15. Born in 1903, Samuels grew up in the Panama Canal Zone and enlisted there in 1920 aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Earp. Even though he grew up in Central America, the service still categorized him, and other Black-Hispanic recruits, as African-Americans. As a senior enlisted man, Samuels became the first recognized African-American Coast Guardsman to receive a cutter command.

During World War II, the Coast Guard undertook the federal government’s first official experiments in military desegregation. In 1943, the Coast Guard began sending African-American officer candidates through its Coast Guard Academy-based Reserve Officer Training Program and commissioned its first African-American officers. By late 1943, the Coast Guard assigned 50 black enlisted men and officers to the Coast Guard-manned USS Sea Cloud. The experiment proved a success and set the standard for integration in other Coast Guard and Navy vessels. Both the commissioning of African-American officers and the Sea Cloud experiment came a year before similar diversity milestones in the Navy. By 1945, the Coast Guard had appointed three African-American ship commanders, one on the East Coast, another guarding the Panama Canal and a third in the Pacific. In addition, five African-American women enlisted in the SPARS, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. They were the first black females to don a Coast Guard uniform.

By the end of the war, all enlisted rates were open to black recruits. However, that advance was just the beginning as African-Americans achieved greater access to all branches of the service in the 1950s. The first black cadet entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1955; however, Merle Smith became the first African-American graduate in 1966. In 1957, African-American Bobby Wilks broke the service’s color barrier in aviation, becoming the Coast Guard’s first minority aviator. In 1977, he attained the rank of captain, the first recognized minority officer to do so. In 1979, Wilks also became the service’s first minority commander of an air station after assuming command of Air Station Brooklyn.

In the 1970s and 1980s, African-Americans recorded numerous Coast Guard “firsts.” In 1976, African-Americans made up seven percent of the service’s total active duty personnel and African-American officers served up to the rank of commander and the enlisted rank of master chief. African-American women first graduated from the Academy in 1983 and dozens of black women climbed the enlisted and officer ranks during the 1980s and 1990s. In 1998, Vincent “Vince” Patton became the first minority enlisted man advanced to Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard. That same year, Erroll Brown became the service’s first black flag officer.

The 21st century saw more color barriers fall. In 2002, Stephen Rochon became the second African-American flag officer. The first African-American female aviator, Jeanine McIntosh, earned her wings in 2005. Lt. Felicia Thomastook command of the Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island in 2009 to become the first black female cutter commander. In 2010, Manson Brownbecame Pacific Area commander and vice admiral. It was the highest Coast Guard rank achieved by an African-American and only the second minority individual to attain that rank.

African-Americans comprise the largest and the longest serving minority in the U.S Coast Guard. They have pioneered the way ahead for all minorities in the Coast Guard, U.S. military, and the nation. While the service celebrates highlights of African-American service in the Coast Guard, it should recognize the accomplishments of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans over the course of its 228-year history. These members of the long blue line have struggled for equal rights and persevered with a dedication that has benefited all who serve in the U.S. Coast Guard.

By Diana Sherbs