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Posted on Jul 28, 2005 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

Breaking the Color Barrier – Book Review

By Richard N Story

Breaking the Color Barrier: The U.S. Naval Academy’s First Black Midshipmen and the Struggle for Racial Equality
Robert J. Schneller, Jr.
New York University Press, 2005

The differences between West Point and Annapolis are like night and day in regards to graduating black cadets. West Point admitted its first black cadets in 1870. Annapolis appointed its first black cadet in 1872. Black cadets at both schools were hazed, ostracized and were sometimes physically abused while in the school. Henry Flipper graduated and was commissioned in 1879 from West Point. Wesley Anthony Brown graduated from Annapolis during 1949. Why did it take Annapolis 70 years longer to graduate its first black officer? What culture flourished at Annapolis to allow it to stay all white for so long? Breaking the Color Barrier by Robert J. Schneller, Jr. looks at Annapolis and the long struggle for racial equality.

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During the Civil War the United States naval ships were racially integrated, yet almost immediately after the war except for such menial jobs as mess attendant/cook at sea or stevedore on land, all other positions in the Navy were denied to blacks. As the times changed and more southerners came into the military, the ‘Jim Crow’ policy in the Navy became more firmly ingrained. The official reasoning behind this policy was that black sailors and white sailors could not berth or work together. This semi-official policy was further amended to include the reasoning that white sailors would not take orders from a black officer. So while neither academy had official policies prohibiting the enrollment of black cadets; both academies and the Cadet Corps used every means at their disposal to keep blacks out of the academy, or if admitted, to run them out.

Still none of this explains why black cadets could enter West Point, graduate and serve, when it took Annapolis seventy more years. The most reasonable explanation is that in the Army there were all black units these officers could serve in if, they managed to survive the hazing and ostracism. The Navy had no such units.

Slowly and with growing momentum from the top down, came the philosophy that blacks will not only serve in the Navy, but will become officers as well. The first black officers in the United States Navy were commissioned under the “V” program. Still confined to shore billets or all black small units, they proved they had all the tools to be successful officers. It was not until Wesley Anthony Brown entered Annapolis and with the administration tolerating no hazing of the cadet, and with the support of white Upperclassmen such as: Donald Whitmire, Joseph Flanagan, Howard Weiss, Edward McCormack Jr. and the future President of the United States James Earl Carter Jr., did Wesley Brown have the support and non-interference required to complete the four year course at the academy. Wesley Brown entered the Navy as a Civil Engineer and retired as an Admiral. He truly has earned the respect of this reviewer and should be more honored by all of society for his accomplishments not only for his race, but the United States as a whole.

Technically the book is well written and easy to read. Robert Schneller, Jr. is an official historian in the Contemporary History Branch of the United States Navy’s Naval Historical Center. The book is well supported by both primary and secondary sources. There are no glaring technical or writing errors, and the illustrations provided adequately support the written text. The book is 331 pages and is listed at $34 (US) softbound, and it represents a good value for some of the secret sociological history of the United States Navy.

If you are interested in the history of the United States Navy or race relations in the United States, then Breaking the Color Barrier is highly recommended. It is really a book about some courageous men who didn’t want any special treatment, just an equal opportunity to serve their nation.

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