African American Men

African American Men

The month of March in 1944 produced a turning point in the common experience of the African American men serving the United States in a military capacity. Thirteen intelligent, proud, and able-bodied black men became the first African American commissioned officers serving the US Navy.

The Golden Thirteen, as these highly esteemed men were called, trained at Camp Robert Smalls, a recruiting center now known as the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. These highly capable African American men earned an almost perfect 3.89 class grade point average and officer status in the US Navy, which counted a total of almost 100,000 African American enlisted men in its ranks.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson, the then-Assistant Secretary of the Navy, together pressured Naval officials to make provisions for training African American men to commissioned officer status, instigating the inclusion of these men in the Navy’s officer training program.

The officer-training program began with 16 African American candidates but only 12 of the men became commissioned as ensigns and one became a warrant boatswain.

Serving as ensigns meant serving as standard (flag) bearers for the US Navy. The African American men commissioned with this honor were Jesse Walter Arbor, Phillip George Barnes, Samuel Edward Barnes, Dalton Louis Baugh, George Clinton Cooper, Reginald E. Goodwin, James Edward Hair, Graham Edward Martin, Dennis Denmark Nelson, John Walter Reagan, Frank Ellis Sublett, and William Sylvester White.

The post of warrant boatswain charges the officer with responsibilities over the ship’s rigging, anchors, and sails. Warrant Boatswain Charles Byrd Lear was the remaining member of the Golden Thirteen.

The entire US military force was officially desegregated in 1948 on order from President Harry S Truman.

In 1987, there were only seven members of the Golden Thirteen still living and they were reunited at the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command, where they trained to become the first African American men to become commissioned officers. Their reunion included a building dedication ceremony where Building 1405 was named “The Golden Thirteen,’ in their honor.

Ground was broken in 2006 at the North Chicago, Illinois, World War II memorial for a monument in their honor.

Officer Frank Ellis Sublett died on September 27, 2006. He was the last surviving member of the history-making Golden Thirteen.