As part of the Coast Guard Compass’ ongoing celebration of Black History Month, we bring you the following article by Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian William H. Thiesen. Mr. Thiesen’s piece on the history of African American service is a reminder not only of how far we’ve come as a nation, but also of the role Guardians played in breaking racial barriers for the betterment of the service and the country we serve.
For some, this piece will serve as an introduction to the Guardians of Pea Island. Check back with the Compass next week for a more in-depth look at the 70-year history of the all-black crew of Pea Island Life-Saving Station.
Finally, we want to recognize that history continues to be made every day. As this piece was being developed, the Commandant of the Coast Guard and Secretary of Homeland Security announced the nomination of Rear Admiral Manson K. Brown to be elevated to the rank of Vice Admiral. Upon Senate confirmation, Brown will be the first African American three-star admiral in Coast Guard History.
The following post was written by William H. Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area.
For those who know the history of African American service in the United States Coast Guard, the Pea Island Life-Saving Station and the Coast Guard manned USS Sea Cloud hold special meaning. While it is important to highlight these important cases, 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.
War often serves as a catalyst for cultural change and so it did for American society and military services during the Civil War. As the role of African Americans changed from slavery to freedom, the United States Lighthouse Service began hiring freed slaves, or “contrabands,” to work at Southern installations.
In 1863, a contraband crew operated the Fishing Rip Lightship, near the captured city of Port Royal, South Carolina. In the 1870s, the Lighthouse Service hired African Americans to operate lighthouses in the Southeast and, by the late 1870s, some lighthouses were overseen by African American keepers and several had all-African American staffs.
At the same time, the newly-formed U.S. Life-Saving Service hired on African American watermen, who were known along the Southeast Coast for their boat handling skills in shallow water and heavy surf. By the 1870s, interracial “checkerboard” crews of white and black surfmen began to emerge.
In 1875, five out of six surfmen in the crew at the Cape Henry Station were African Americans and, in 1876, Jeremiah Munden became the first African American surfman to give his life in the line of duty.
In 1880, the service appointed African American surfman Richard Etheridge as station keeper and assembled the all-black crew of the Pea Island Station out of skilled African American surfmen serving in local Life-Saving Stations. In 1896, the men of Pea Island performed the Gold Life-Saving Medal rescue of the passengers and crew of the wrecked schooner E.S. Newman.
Into the middle of the twentieth century, the Pea Island Station served as one of the great success stories for African Americans in the service. For example, the family dynasty of North Carolina’s Berry family, which began when Joseph H. Berry became a surfman in 1897, included dozens of Coast Guard personnel and several of these Coast Guardsmen served at Pea Island. Some enlisted members of the Pea Island crew, such as Herbert Collins, received officer commissions and served out full and rewarding careers in the service.
The service decommissioned Pea Island in 1947 after nearly seventy years under an African American crew.
World War II would also serve as a catalyst in ending discrimination against African Americans in particular, and minorities in general.
In late 1943, midway through World War II, the Coast Guard undertook the first deliberate attempt to desegregate a federal sea service vessel by assigning fifty African American officers and enlisted men to the Coast Guard manned USS Sea Cloud. The diversity experiment worked setting the standard for desegregation in other vessels of the Coast Guard and U.S. Navy and initiating a series of advances for African Americans in the service.
The officers and enlisted men on board the vessel provided a “who’s who” of minority pioneers of the Coast Guard. As an enlisted public affairs specialist, Sea Cloud’s Jacob Lawrence painted scenes on board the vessel and increased his renown as a world-class modernist painter. Sea Cloud’s Ensign Joseph C. Jenkins was the first African American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy’s Officer Candidate School and second African American officer in service history. Lt. Clarence Samuels had already become the second African American in service history to command a Coast Guard vessel (Patrol Boat AB-15, 1928) and, while a member of Sea Cloud’s crew, he became the second to reach the rank of lieutenant. Also, Sea Cloud crewmember, Harvey C. Russell, Jr., went on to become the second African American graduate of OCS and, in 1945, became the third African American to command a Coast Guard manned vessel.
Many of these achievements had already been pioneered by historic Revenue Cutter Service Captain “Hell Roarin” Mike Healy in the 1860s and 1870s, when he became the first officer and ship’s captain of African-American heritage in the history of the service. But the Sea Cloud men listed above were known to be African Americans while Healy’s African American heritage was never known due to his light skin complexion and the fact he never disclosed his ethnic background. In light of this fact, Sea Cloud’s officers and enlisted men should be considered pioneers in the struggle for racial equality.
World War II was just the beginning as African Americans continued the struggle for equality in all parts of the service. By the end of the war, 5,000 African Americans had served in the Coast Guard with honor, dedication and, in many cases, great heroism and all enlisted rates had been opened to African American recruits.
During the rest of the twentieth century, African Americans recorded numerous Coast Guard “firsts” as they established careers, rose through the officer and enlisted ranks, and found work in numerous roles previously unknown to African American Coast Guard personnel. By 1998, an African American had risen to flag rank and another to E-10, the highest enlisted rate in the service.
While the service celebrates these and other special moments in the history of African Americans in the U.S. Coast Guard, it should also recognize the accomplishments of thousands of African American service men and women who never received credit for their hard work, dedication and devotion to duty. For instance, in the years leading up to the establishment of the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, dozens of African Americans kept the light and risked their lives so that others might live.
These are just a few of the brave men and women who pioneered equal rights for minorities during the U. S. Coast Guard’s 220-year history and, in so doing, made the Coast Guard a far better service for all of its personnel.