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The Forgotten Story of How 13 Black Men Broke the Navy’s Toughest Color Barrier

There were 60,000 black men in the Navy, and 12,000 more were entering every month, Stevenson wrote to Knox on September 29, 1943. “Obviously, this cannot go on indefinitely without accepting some officers or trying to explain why we don’t,” Stevenson said. “I feel very emphatically that we should commission a few negroes.”

Knox assented. Three months later, Barnes and his comrades were in Armstrong’s office, being told they were going to make history. Many of Barnes’ fellow officer trainees were cynical, not yet willing to believe the Navy would really allow black officers, even after they completed their training. But each man swore he’d give it his all anyway. “We believed there were people who hoped we’d fail,” Barnes later recalled. “We were determined to succeed in spite of the burden that was being placed on our shoulders.”

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Giving black men a chance did not mean they’d be given equal treatment. Great Lakes Naval Training Station was home to an elite service school with plenty of equipment that could aid their training. But the 16 candidates saw almost none of that. They trained separately from all other sailors, drilled apart, and ate alone, living in their own barracks in the segregated section of the station, essentially under house arrest. The officer corps was ready to be integrated. Great Lakes Naval Training Station was not.

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Many in this first group recalled in interviews and oral histories that their white instructors weren’t all that interested in whether the men passed, failed or learned anything at all. Some instructors, it seemed to the officer candidates, acted as if this whole exercise was a waste of time. Lt. Paul Richmond, who designed the curriculum, was particularly hard on the men, they later said. Richmond, in his own oral history, said he had no malicious intent. He wanted to make the course as tough as he could because he knew the men would be scrutinized once they graduated, and because he had so much to teach in such a short period of time. Richmond, who at 23-years old was younger than all the men in the course, relied on his own experience at the Naval Academy to build the program. Making it difficult—being gruff, callous, even indifferent—was how you molded men into officers. And, he said, if he scared them a little by telling them that they weren’t up to snuff or that they weren’t going to make it, it was only to motivate them.

Regardless of his intent, Richmond’s attitude made the group even more determined. They were going to show him and every other Richmond-like figure they’d ever met.

And so they did.

Jesse Arbor | National Archives

The men were supposed to be in bed with the lights out at 10:30 p.m., but well past that hour, they sat together in the bathroom, flashlights in hand, studying the lessons of the past day and preparing for the day ahead. They draped sheets over the windows so no one outside would notice the light. They were intent on proving that their “selection was justified,” Barnes said, “and that we weren’t a party to tokenism.”

Jesse Arbor, a quartermaster, taught semaphore and Morse code. He’d give a prompt, Barnes remembered, such as “a ship approaching on such-and-such side.” The men would tap it out on the wall of the restroom. If they got it wrong, they’d start again. Even their toughest instructors weren’t as demanding as they were of themselves. When the men went to class the next day there was little a teacher could do to catch them off-guard.

Despite the 20-hour days, the ridicule and the racism, the 16 candidates never outwardly showed any sign of dissent. They knew that losing their temper could give credence to the pervasive belief that black men lacked the demeanor necessary for command.

Once, the officer candidates were lined up for a medical exam. “All right, you boys, strip down,” someone yelled. “Everything off. Strip down.” “Stand over there,” came another order. “Stand at attention.”

Arbor had white splotches on the skin near the top of his penis. A white pharmacist’s mate grabbed a 36-inch ruler and yelled out, “Look at this, look at this. Here’s this Negro here. Look at this man, half white and half black.” As he spoke, he rapped Arbor’s penis with the ruler, causing him to wince with each whack.

His comrades were certain a riot was about to start. This was it. This was the moment they would surely be kicked out.

“Hey, boy, where did you get this thing from?” the pharmacist’s mate asked, still whacking Arbor’s penis.
Arbor looked him directly in the eye, just the way the Navy had taught.

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“Well, you see, sir, I was raised in a white neighborhood.”

Nothing more than a snicker escaped his peers’ lips, and the white men, furious that they could not get a rise out of the officer candidates, stormed off.

Their restraint was not an accident. These men had been winnowed from hundreds of potential candidates, chosen because the Navy deemed them not too extreme in their attitudes. Like Jackie Robinson, who would break baseball’s color barrier three years later, these men were chosen because they were expected to suffer these indignities quietly and gracefully.

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