The Long Blue Line: African-Americans in the U.S. Coast Guard (Part 2)

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

The integrated crew of the cutter Yocona photographed in 1925. Unlike officially desegregated cutters in World War II, Yocona had white officers and non-commissioned officers with an all-black enlisted force. Coast Guard Collection.

The integrated crew of the cutter Yocona photographed in 1925. Unlike officially desegregated cutters in World War II, Yocona had white officers and non-commissioned officers with an all-black enlisted force. Coast Guard Collection.

Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian

In the first part of this blog series on African-Americans in the U.S. Coast Guard, we covered some of the earliest moments in history in which African-Americans were a part of the service. 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 over 225 years of Coast Guard history, African-Americans have been the first minority group to serve, first to fight and the first to sacrifice.

In the first half of the 20th century, African-Americans enjoyed further advances in the service. Beginning in 1897, over 20 members of North Carolina’s Berry family served with approximately 400 years of total Coast Guard service and nearly 115 consecutive years served by one or more family members. In 1919, the Vicksburg-based Cutter Yocona became the first integrated federal ship in U.S. history. The crew included white officers and non-commissioned officers with a black enlisted force. By 1928, cutterman Clarence Samuels became the second African-American in U.S. history to command a federal vessel. During World War II, Samuels would become the first black officer to command a U.S. warship in a combat zone.

Lt. Joseph Jenkins and Lt. Clarence Samuels, two African-American officers standing on the rolling decks of the Coast Guard Cutter Sea Cloud in the North Atlantic. These men were the first recognized African-American officers in the service. Coast Guard Collection.

Lt. Joseph Jenkins and Lt. Clarence Samuels, two African-American officers standing on the rolling decks of the Coast Guard Cutter Sea Cloud in the North Atlantic. These men were the first recognized African-American officers in the service. Coast Guard Collection.

During WWII, the Coast Guard undertook the federal government’s first official experiments in 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 officers and enlisted men to the Coast Guard-manned USS Sea Cloud. The experiment proved a success and set the standard for integration in other vessels of the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy. Both the commissioning of African-American officers and the Sea Cloud experiment came a year before similar milestones in the U.S. Navy. By 1945, the Coast Guard also appointed its third black ship commander and five African-American women enlisted to become the first black females to don a Coast Guard uniform. African-American war heroes received numerous honors and awards, including the Bronze Star Medal, Navy & Marine Corps Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, Silver Lifesaving Medal and Purple Heart Medal.

Olivia Hooker enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1945. She was the first African-American woman to don a uniform and become an active-duty member of the service. Coast Guard Collection.

Olivia Hooker enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1945. She was the first African-American woman to don a uniform and become an active-duty member of the service. Coast Guard Collection.

By the end of the war, 5,000 blacks had served in the Coast Guard with one of every five reaching petty officer or warrant officer levels. These men and women included Jacob Lawrence, a crewmember aboard Sea Cloud, who became a famous modernist painter in the 1950s and 1960s. Others included SPAR Olivia Hooker, who went on to become a distinguished professor of psychology at Fordham University, retiring at the age of 87. Alexander “Alex” Haley enlisted in 1939 as a steward’s mate and rose to become the first chief journalist in the Coast Guard. After 20 years, he retired to pursue writing and won awards as the author of such books as “Roots” and the “Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Later, Haley received the first honorary degree awarded by the Coast Guard Academy and became the namesake of a Coast Guard cutter. In 1945, Lt. j.g. Harvey Russell became the third African American officer to command a federal vessel. After he left the service, he joined the Pepsi-Cola Company and, in the early 1960s, he broke America’s corporate color barrier when he rose to vice president of that multi-national corporation. In 1943, Russell’s friend and Sea Cloud shipmate, Lt. j.g. Joseph Jenkins, had received an invitation from the African nation of Liberia to serve as the civil engineer in charge of design and constructing that country’s infrastructure projects. However, Jenkins remained in the service and, after the war, returned to his hometown of Detroit, where he oversaw construction of the city’s rapidly expanding freeway system. After the war, Coast Guardsman Emlen Tunnell became a professional football star with the New York Giants. He was the first African-American inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame and experts today rank him as one of the 100 greatest players in NFL history.

In 1966, Merle Smith became the first African-American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. As a cutter captain in Vietnam, he received the Bronze Star Medal and became the first African-American to command a federal vessel in a combat situation. Coast Guard Collection.

In 1966, Merle Smith became the first African-American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy. As a cutter captain in Vietnam, he received the Bronze Star Medal and became the first African-American to command a federal vessel in a combat situation. Coast Guard Collection.

By the end of the war all enlisted rates were opened to African-American recruits. But that advance was just the beginning as African-Americans gained greater access and equality in all parts of the service. The first black cadet entered the Coast Guard Academy in 1955; however, Merle Smith became the first African-American graduate in 1966. As a cutter commander in Vietnam, Smith became the service’s second black recipient of the Bronze Star Medal. By the mid-1970s, African Americans made up seven percent of the service, including individuals at the master chief and captain levels. 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 Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard. Coast Guard Collection.

In 1998, Vincent “Vince” Patton became the first minority Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard. Coast Guard Collection.

In modern times, African-Americans recorded numerous Coast Guard “firsts” as they achieved higher officer and enlisted levels, and received assignments in numerous roles previously unknown to blacks. By 1998, Vince Patton became Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, the highest enlisted rank in the service. That same year, Erroll Brown the first black flag officer, followed in 2002 by Stephen Rochon. The first African-American female aviator, Jeanine Menze, earned her wings in 2005. In 2009, Lt. Felicia Thomas took command of the Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island to become the first black female to command a cutter. In 2010, Manson Brown became Pacific Area commander and vice admiral, the highest Coast Guard rank achieved by an African-American.

In 2010, Manson Brown became the first minority service member to become a Coast Guard area commander and three-star admiral. Coast Guard Collection.

In 2010, Manson Brown became the first minority service member to become a Coast Guard area commander and three-star admiral. Coast Guard Collection.

African-Americans comprise the longest serving minority in the United States 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 black personnel over the course of its 225-year history. These members of the long blue line have striven for equal rights and persevered with a dedication that has benefited all who serve in the United States Coast Guard.

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