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.
Written by William H. Thiesen
Coast Guard Atlantic Area historian
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 fact, the first known service death in the line of duty was a black cutterman lost off Revenue Cutter South Carolina in 1795.
During the early years of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, many African-American cuttermen were slaves as well as free men of color. Regardless of their status, blacks served side-by-side with their white shipmates. In the Quasi-War with France of the 1790s and the War of 1812, African-American cuttermen were among the first to fight against Royal Navy warships. The youngest prisoner-of-war in Coast Guard history was a black 15-year-old cutterman who was captured off Revenue Cutter James Madison during the War of 1812. In 1836, the service experienced its first African-American combat loss when assistant keeper and freedman Aaron Carter died defending the Cape Florida Lighthouse against a Seminole Indian attack.
War often serves as a catalyst for cultural change and it did for African-Americans in Coast Guard predecessor services. During the Civil War, blacks comprised 5 to 10 percent of the crewmembers aboard Revenue cutters. Given the small size of cutter crews, this proved a de facto form of integration. As the status of countless African-Americans changed from slave to freedman, the U.S. Lighthouse Service began hiring former slaves, or “contrabands,” to work at southern installations. For example, in 1863, a contraband crew operated the Fishing Rip Lightship, near the captured city of Port Royal, South Carolina. Soon after the war, the Lighthouse Service hired African-Americans to operate lighthouses in the southeast and, by the late-1870s, black keepers supervised some lighthouses while all-black crews manned other lights.
In the 1870s, the newly-formed U.S. Life-Saving Service hired African-American watermen along the southeast coast who were known for their boathandling skills in shallow water and heavy surf. As a result, the service assembled interracial “checkerboard” crews of white and black surfmen. In 1875, five out of six surfmen in the crew at the Cape Henry Station were black. In 1876, African-American Jeremiah Munden was among the service’s first surfmen to die in the line of duty. By 1880, the service appointed African-American surfman Richard Etheridge as station keeper of the all-black Pea Island Life-Saving Station. In 1896, this Pea Island crew performed the Gold Life-Saving Medal rescue of survivors from the wrecked schooner E.S. Newman.
The late-1800s saw other opportunities for African-Americans. Receiving a Revenue Cutter Service commission in 1865, “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy was the first commissioned officer and ship’s captain of African-American heritage in the history of the nation’s sea services; he became famous in the 1880s and 1890s as the captain of the Arctic Revenue Cutter Bear. The Spanish-American War also served as a minority highlight of the late-1890s. The Cutter Hudson’s steward, Moses Jones, and cook Henry Savage received specially-struck Congressional Bronze Medals along with rest of the enlisted crew for heroic service in the hard-fought Battle of Cardenas Bay, Cuba. It was the first such recognition of African-Americans in U.S. history.
African-Americans continued to break barriers, becoming the first of many different roles within the Coast Guard. Check back next week to continue learning about the many achievements and firsts African-American Coast Guardsmen and women have accomplished.