AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE COAST GUARD
In 1790, the year the Coast Guard was founded, slavery was a way of life in the United States. Although all the Northern states would soon abolish slaveholding, in that year every one of the 13 states was still a slave state. And although the federal government would make it a federal crime in 1794 to import slaves into the territorial limits of the United States, this would be a law slaverunners would continue to transgress even up to the time of the Civil War. (As late as 1960, interracial marriage was still a criminal act in 32 states.) Even when freed, black slaves most frequently became the "servants" of their former masters, working for room and board and little else, under conditions which legally amounted to voluntary servitude but which factually were not much different from slavery.
To understand the early history of African Americans in the Coast Guard is to first understand these conditions.
The early history of blacks in the Service is the history of the shipslaves and servants of white Coast Guard members and officers. While some may quibble over whether these black heroes were legally "members" of the Coast Guard, the reality of their service demands that they be accorded both that title and that distinction.
The early history of African Americans in the Coast Guard is their story, and the story here that we present is recorded history. But the Association is still hunting for the unrecorded history of blacks in the Coast Guard and if you can help us you can contact us either on this Homepage's Guestbook or at our email address, email@example.com
Today's Coast Guard is an amalgamation of five predecessors: The Revenue Cutter Service; the Life-Saving Service (this and the Revenue Cutter Service merged in 1915); the Lighthouse Service (absorbed in 1939); and the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection, itself a merger of two agencies (added to the Coast Guard in 1942).
African Americans in the Revenue Cutter Service
The Coast Guard traces its primary root to the Revenue Cutter Service, which was a "military" organization from its inception and which element has modeled the character of the Coast Guard more than any other predecessor service.
The first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, proposed that the federal government accept public responsibility for safety at sea. On August 7, 1789, President George Washington approved the Enabling Ninth Act of Congress. To counter smuggling and other illegal activities rampant at the time, Hamilton proposed a seagoing military force to support national economic policy and thus on August 4, 1790, the Revenue Cutter Service's predecessor, the Revenue Marine , was born.
The Organic Act then provided for the establishment and support of ten armed cutters for the Service to enforce the customs laws. Hamilton also requested a professional corps of commissioned officers.
The first commissioned officer was Hopley Yeaton, commanding officer of the Scammel. Yeaton owned a slave , Senegal, who served on board.
The practice of officers using slaves as stewards, cooks and seamen on board Revenue cutters became a common one until an 1843 Service regulation banned slaves from serving on board. The Service specifically had no objection to the employment of freed blacks, providing they were the servants of officers, as sailors, cooks and stewards.
Since 1794, the Revenue Marine Service had been carrying out the important mission of preventing the importation of slaves into the territorial limits of the United States. Illustrating this mission, the revenue cutters stationed at South Atlantic coast ports captured numerous vessels between 1807 and 1819, with almost 500 blacks to be sold as slaves. Slaverunning, however, continued to remain rampant in American waters up to the Civil War with the Caribbean and the Florida Keys being key transhipment areas.
Even after the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865, the status of African-Americans within the Revenue Cutter Service remained for the most part unchanged through the 1880s, until the appointment of Captain Michael A. Healy to command the Cutter Bear.
Healy was the only African-American to have a command or commission in any of the Coast Guard's predecessor services. He commanded the Bear from 1887 to 1895, and retired as the third highest ranking officer from the Revenue Cutter Service. His story is told in a special biography at the bottom of this Homepage.
During the Spanish-American War, African-American cuttermen distinguished themselves at the Battle of Cardenas Bay in Cuba.
In that Battle, the Revenue Cutter Hudson joined two U.S. Navy gunboats in a fierce attack on Spanish gunboats and the port's shore batteries. The Hudson alone fired 135 shells in just twenty minutes. The Hudson's African-American steward, Savage, and ship's Cook Moses Jones, both helped sustain this rapid rate of fire as ammunition passers. Shells screamed all about and one of the Navy gunboats was hit, and began to drift. The Hudson and her crew bravely moved into Spanish fire, made fast the Navy ship, and towed her to safety.
A silver medal of honor authorized by President William McKinley was presented to both Savage and Jones, as well as the rest of the Hudson's crew, because of their bravery in the line of fire, and in the rescue of the Navy vessel and her wounded men.
African-Americans in the U.S. Lighthouse Service
Before construction of the first U.S. lighthouse in Boston in 1716, only bonfires or blazing barrels of pitch on headlands guided ships to port at night. Boston had one of America's earliest fog signals and the first buoys appeared in the Delaware River by 1767. The earliest Lightship Station was at Craney Island, Hampton Roads, Virginia, where a decked-over small boat was moored in 1820.
Responsibility for navigational aids was assumed by the federal government in 1789, when the Lighthouse Service became part of the Treasury Department's Revenue Marine Bureau. From 1852 to 1910, the responsibility for aids lay under the Lighthouse Board, and then shifted to the Commerce Department in 1903. The Service was a Commerce responsibilty until it was returned to the Treasury and the Coast Guard.
In 1718, a slave who belonged to the keeper of the Boston Lighthouse bravely perished, along with his master, as they both struggled to keep the lights going during a fierce storm.
African-Americans served aboard early lightships as cooks. One elderly African-American woman became the de facto keeper of the Simons Island Lighthouse in 1836, when the actual keeper became incapacitated.
On a stormy March evening in 1847, an African-American sailor rescued his shipmates, whose brig was teetering on the rocks below the Isle of Shoals Lighthouse off the New Hampshire coast. Braving certain death, he got help for his crewmates from the Light.
In 1852, the New Point Lighthouse in Virginia was run by a retired sea captain and his assistant, a woman slave.
During the Seminole Indian Wars in 1836, Keeper John W.B. Thompson of the Cape Florida Light on Key Biscayne, and his African-american assistant, were besieged in the Lighthouse by the Seminoles, who set fire to the bottom of the tower. As the two men struggled to contain the flames and threw kegs of gunpowder at the Indians, the assistant was killed by Seminole gunshots. With the tower burnt, the Seminoles thought the two men were dead and left. Thompson, however, though crippled for life, survived, and was rescued by the crews of two Navy vessels, and the Cape Florida Light was rebuilt and continued to guide mariners as they passed the dangerous Florida Reef until 1878.
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Unknown Gem Type: tlx.tlx.news
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Unknown Gem Type: tlx.tlx.news
African-Americans in the Life-Saving Service
The African-Americans employed by the Life-saving Service were experienced fishermen and oystermen who had lived along the Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina coasts. They were well trained to handle boats and were knowledgeable about surf and sea. Upon clearance from the medical surgeon, these men were issued Articles of Engagement and became paid U.S. Life-Savers.
Beginning in 1875, records show many African-American Life-Savers being employed in what are now the 5th and 6th Coast Guard Districts. These experienced seamen cooked, patrolled the beach and participated in various duties that became integral to their work as surfmen. A typical Life-saving station day included such routines as cleaning the station, patrolling the beaches, drilling in the use of life cars, practicing launching of the station's lifeboat, practicing with the breeches buoy, throwing a line (firing the gun) to a representation of a wreck, sanding and painting the boats, travelling to pick up mail and supplies, practicing resusitation and repairing equipment.
The primary duty of crews at Life-saving Stations was to aid ships in distress. African-Americans saved many lives and preserved property in so doing.
Richard Etheridge: Keeper, Pea Island Life-Saving Station
The story of Richard Etheridge, the first African-American keeper of the Pea Island, North Carolina Lifeboat Station, is an inspiring first chapter in the celebrated history of the lifeboat station that was built during the winter of 1878-79 and initially manned by whites. From the time of Etheridge's assuming command in 1880, Pea Island was staffed by African-Americans until the station was closed in 1947, after which the area became a wildlife refuge.
Pea Island Lifeboat station logged numerous rescues in its annals. One of the early crewmembers of the Pea Island Station, Maxie Berry, Sr., served 25 years there and retired as a Chief Boatswain's Mate. His father, Joseph H. Berry, Surfman, retired in 1917 after 15 years of service at Pea Island. Maxie Berry's son, Maxie M. Berry, Jr., retired as a Coast Guard Lieutenant Commander in 1976 after serving in the Office of Civil Rights at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C.. Another son of Maxie, Sr., Zion H. Berry, also served in the Coast Guard, to continue a remarkable tradition of over 70 years of this family's continuous service to the Coast Guard.
In 1879, Charles F. Shoemaker, Assistant Inspector of the Life-Saving Service, recommended Richard Etheridge to assume keepership at Pea Island, following the discharge of the previous keeper and surfman, whose failures in performance of duty had led to the unnecessary loss of lives. Shoemaker's letter of recommendation on Etheridge read:
" I examined this man and found him to
be 38 years of age, strong, robust physiqe,
intelligent and able to read and write.
He is reputed one of the best surfmen
on this part of the coast of North Carolina."
Shoemaker recommended that Etheridge select a crew of African-Americans, two from Station #10, two already at Pea Island, and two others of Etheridge's choosing. Adding that he was "aware that no colored man holds the position of Keeper in the Life-Saving Service," Shoemaker explained that Etheridge was such an excellent surfman that "the efficiency of the Service at Pea Island will be greatly enhanced."
Another Assistant Inspector of the Service wrote that Etheridge " had the reputation of being as good a surfman as there is on this coast, black or white."
Etheridge was appointed Keeper of the Pea Island Station on January 24, 1880, becoming the first African-American Keeper in the Service. He was born in 1842 and raised near Pea Island, where he had become an expert fisherman and surfman.
Soon after Etheridge's appointment, the station burned down. Etheridge supervised the construction of a new station on the original site. He also developed rigorous lifesaving drills that enabled his crew to tackle all lifesaving tasks. His station earned the reputation of "one of the tautest on the Carolina coast," with its keeper well-known as one of the most courageous and ingenious lifesavers in the Service.
In October, 1896, a three-masted schooner was caught in a terrifying storm and slammed onto the beach two miles south of the Pea Island Station. Station Surfman Theodore Meekins saw the first distress flare.
The station crew was rounded up and launced the surfboat. Battling the strong tide and sweeping currents, the lifesavers struggled to make their way to a point opposite the schooner, only to find there was no dry land. The daring, quick witted Etheridge tied two of his strongest surfmen together and connected them to shore by a long line. They fought their way through the roaring breakers and finally reached the schooner. The seemingly inexhaustible Pea Island crewmen journeyed through the perilous waters ten times and rescued every one of the nine persons on board. For this action the Pea Island Life-Saving Station was awarded the Gold Life-Saving Medal. In 1992, the Coast Guard Cutter Pea Island was commissioned at Norfolk in honor of the African-American crews at Pea Island, including Richard Etheridge and his lifesavers.
African-American Coast Guardsmen in Defense of America
The Coast Guard has served in every war from the American Revolution through the War on Terror. During World War I, 15 Coast Guard cutters, some 200 officers and 5,000 enlisted men went into action with the U.S. Navy. By World War II, the Coast Guard had 802 vessels, and its personnel manned 351 and 288 Army craft. Shore stations increased from 1,094 to 1,774, and by the end of the war, Coast Guard personnel numbered 171,168.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt made it clear that African-Americans would be integrated into the general ranks of the Coast Guard and Navy, Secretary of the Navy Knox announced in April, 1942 that African-Americans would be accepted in capacities other than messmen.
The first group of 150 African-American volunteers was recruited and sent to Manhattan Beach Training Station in New York in the spring of 1942. There they received instruction in seamanship, knot tying, lifesaving and small boat handling. Classes and other activities were integrated, with sleeping and mess facilities segregated. African-Americans who qualified for specialized training after the four week basic course became radiomen, pharmacists, yeomen, coxswains, electricians, carpenters and boatswains 2d mate.
Organized induction and assignment of African-American volunteers was terminated in December, 1942, when President Roosevelt ended volunteer enlistment of most military personnel. For the remainder of World War II, the Coast Guard came under the Selective Service Law, which included a racial quota system.
Many African-Americans continued to be assigned to steward duties and were often ordered to serve at important battle stations. The majority were assigned to shore duty, including security and labor details and working as yeomen, storekeepers, and in other capacities. The second all African-American station (Pea Island was the first) was organized at Tiana Beach, New York. African-Americans also served on horse and dog patrols as lookouts for enemy infiltration along the coast.
With so many African-Americans assigned to shore duty, manpower planners found it difficult to rotate Coast Guardsmen from sea to shore duty without transferring African-Americans to cutters, which would result in integrating the vessels. Finally in June, 1943, the first vessel, the weather ship Sea Cloud was integrated, with four officers and 50 petty officers African-American out of a total crew of 173.
Although Sea Cloud was decommissioned in November, 1944, its operation demonstrated that the integrated crew was in every way as efficient as any other. The experiment paved the way for other African-Americans to serve in crews not completely segregated. The integrated Destroyer Escort Hoqulan operated out of Adak in the Aleutians during 1945, and the integrated cutter Campbell rammed and sank a German submarine in 1943, for which action the captain of the African-American gun crew was awarded the Bronze Medal.
Many African-Americans served bravely in the war, both as Coast Guard officers and enlisted personnel.
Messman Charles W. David, Jr, died in the line of duty diving overboard repeatedly to save the lives of several men on a torpedoed transport in the North Atlantic.
As the war progressed, African-Americans advanced into the petty officer ranks. By August, 1945, 965 African-Americans were petty officers or warrant officers, often in the general services. Many of these officers worked at shore stations and served as instructors at Manhattan Beach, the customary commissioning source for African- Americans. Among those graduating from Manhattan Beach were: Joseph Jenkins, who went on to graduate from Coast Guard aAcademy OCS as the first African-American Ensign in the Coast Guard Reserve; Harvey C. Russell, who became Executive Officer on an integrated cutter in the Philippines; and Clarence Samuels, who was commissioned as a Lt.(jg) and assigned to the Sea Cloud.
In the fall of 1944, the Coast Guard recruited its first five African-American women as reservists.
Although today the Coast Guard is officially integrated, it still is the service with the lowest percentage of blacks in both its enlisted and officers' ranks.