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, Ph.D.
African-Americans have served in the United States Coast Guard throughout its nearly 230-year history, but their participation in the service has been largely overlooked. So it is only fitting that we should document some of their participation by starting with the Coast Guard Academy, which pioneered the role of African-American officers in the U.S. sea services.
The first African-American officers to serve in the modern Coast Guard received their training at the Academy, but rather than enter as cadets, these men came through the Reserve Officer Training Course, forerunner of today’s Officer Candidate School. The first of these unique individuals was Joseph Charles Jenkins, who was born in Detroit in 1914. Jenkins began working for the Michigan State Highway Department at a young age, which encouraged him to earn a civil engineering degree at the University of Michigan. He graduated in 1937 and, for the next five years, he served as a design engineer for the highway department and helped oversee the construction of the Detroit Crosstown Superhighway and the Willow Run Industrial Expressway. Meanwhile, he undertook graduate studies at Michigan State and University of Michigan and completed a business administration degree through an extension program.
On June 15, 1942, at the ripe age of 27, Joseph Jenkins enlisted in the Coast Guard. To start, he received the rating of boatswain’s mate first class and, within a month, he advance to chief. On September 1, the service advanced Jenkins to warrant officer, making him the service’s first minority warrant officer. During his brief time as an enlisted man, Jenkins served as a recruiter for African-American enlistees in Detroit. By October, he applied for the service’s Reserve Officer Training Course with recommendations from Michigan Senator Prentiss Brown; State Highway Commissioner Donald Kelly; Lewis Downing, dean of Howard University’s School of Engineering and Architecture; and Chief Boatswain’s Mate H.O. Nielsen, Jenkins’s white supervisor at Detroit’s Coast Guard recruiting office. In his recommendation letter, Nielsen wrote that Jenkins “displays keen judgment and leadership in handling the public and in other problems . . . [and] appears to be ideally suited for officer material and is so recommended.”
On April 13, 1943, Jenkins completed the Academy’s Reserve Officer Training Course. The next day, he received an ensign’s commission to become the first “recognized” African-American naval officer in the nation’s history. Some historians cite Revenue Cutter Service officer Michael Healy, late-19th century captain of the famous revenue cutter Bear, as the first African-American sea service officer in U.S. history. Son of a plantation owner and a slave mother, he could be considered African-American by 19th century ethnic standards as well as today’s. However, due to his light skinned complexion, his peers and contemporaries did not realize he was African-American; Healy never disclosed his ethnic background to others. Because Joseph Jenkins’s ethnic background was officially recognized and he predates African-American officers in all other maritime services, he qualifies as the first known African-American officer in the nation’s sea services.
In December 1943, the service initiated an experiment in U.S. shipboard desegregation. The Coast Guard-manned USS Sea Cloud became the federal government’s first deliberate test of desegregation on board a U.S. ship. The cutter’s enlisted ranks included white and black crewmembers, while newly promoted junior grade lieutenants Joseph Jenkins and Clarence Samuels, a direct commission enlisted man, provided Sea Cloud’s command with black officers. In late 1943, pushing to integrate the Navy’s officer ranks as soon as possible, politician and special assistant to the Navy Secretary Adlai Stevenson, wrote the Navy secretary, “Ultimately there will be Negro officers in the Navy. It seems to me wise to do something about it now. . . . the pressure will mount both among the Negroes and in the government as well. The Coast Guard has already commissioned two who qualified in all respects for their commissions.”
The second African-American admitted to the Academy’s Reserve Officer Training Course had a unique background as well. Born in 1918 in Louisville, Kentucky, Harvey Clarence Russell Jr., was an Eagle Scout and the son of a professor at Western Kentucky University. He completed a four-year degree from Kentucky State University, where he lettered in football, and later undertook graduate studies at the University of Michigan and Indiana University. During World War II, he began teaching at the high school level before completing his studies before taking a job machining top secret bombsight parts for the war effort. Russell enlisted in the service as an apprentice seaman in December 1942 and advanced to coxswain within four months. The service recognized his potential as a leader, and assigned him as a signalman instructor to the Advanced Seamanship School at the Coast Guard’s Manhattan Beach Training Station in New York City.
Russell began the Reserve Officer Training Course in September 1943, nine months after Jenkins. He received very high marks as a leader and was popular both on and off the Academy campus. He completed training in February 1944 and joined Jenkins aboard the Sea Cloud. Newly promoted to lieutenant junior grade, Jenkins served as the cutter’s navigation officer while Russell served as the training officer. The two men remained aboard Sea Cloud through most of 1944 and became best friends.
Later in 1944, Sea Cloud was decommissioned and Jenkins and Russell parted company. In January 1945, Jenkins took temporary command of a 78-foot cutter in Boston, becoming the Coast Guard’s third African-American ship captain, behind Healy and his former shipmate Clarence Samuels, and the fourth minority skipper in the service. Later in 1945, Jenkins and Russell were re-united in the Pacific to serve aboard the patrol frigate USS Hoquiam, a second Coast Guard experiment in desegregation. In October 1945, after departing Hoquiam, Russell assumed command of the U.S. Army fuel vessel TY-45, manned by an all-white Coast Guard crew. In so doing, Russell became the fourth black captain and the fifth minority skipper in the Coast Guard. In 1961, over 15 years later, Samuel Gravely received the distinction of becoming the first African-American officer to command a U.S. Navy ship.
Both Jenkins and Russell served with distinction in the Coast Guard. In 1943, Jenkins had received an invitation from the African nation of Liberia to serve as civil engineer in charge of that country’s infrastructure projects; however, he turned down the offer and remained in the service for the duration of the war. In 1946, Russell sent a letter to the Coast Guard personnel office after commanding TY-45 in the South Pacific. In the letter, he wrote, “During the past four years, the Coast Guard has built up good will due to its race relations policies and is considered the most liberal of all the armed forces. It is for this reason that I feel I could be integrated into the regular service.” In the end, both men chose to transfer their commissions to reserve status and returned to civilian life after the war.
Jenkins and Russell also made great contributions in civilian life. In September 1945, Jenkins returned home to Detroit where he became the Michigan State Highway Department’s assistant director for metropolitan Detroit. He also received a commission as a captain in Michigan’s National Guard engineering corps. In 1959, high blood pressure caused Jenkins’s kidneys to fail and organ transplant surgery had not come into common practice. He died at the age of 44. Russell became an executive with the Pepsi-Cola Company and, in 1962, broke the corporate color barrier after receiving a promotion to Vice President of Corporate Planning for Pepsi-Cola. He passed away in 1998 at the age of 79.
During their time in the service, Jenkins and Russell pioneered ethnic diversity in the U.S. military. They were the first African-Americans to receive training at the Coast Guard Academy, they served as officers aboard the nation’s first desegregated ship, and they were among the first black officers to command a U.S. ship, doing so many years before the same color barrier fell in the Navy.
Joseph Jenkins and Harvey Russell were not concerned with their historic achievements. Like any other Coast Guardsmen, their primary concern was to serve their country, apply their military training and support the war effort. Thousands of African-American Coast Guard men and women would follow in their path. These two officers and friends were members of the long blue line and they proved a great credit to their service and their country.