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Models of Excellence

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Models of Excellence

A new book recounts how 13 black American sailors broke the color barrier during the 1940s. June 13, 2020
The Social Order
Arts and Culture

The Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold, by Dan Goldberg (Beacon Press, 288 pp., $28.95)

In 1945, the United States and its allies secured victory in the most bloody and destructive war in history. Triumph meant more than defeating enemies that threatened us and our allies; it also meant the vanquishing of an insidious racist ideology that posed an existential threat to democracy. The efforts of men and women who sacrificed their lives for the war led to their reputation as the Greatest Generation. Their fight to defend freedom and equality abroad became a source of American pride, but we must also remember those who fought for those same values within our own borders.

In a new book, The Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold, Dan C. Goldberg recounts how 13 black Americans broke the color barrier for the naval officer ranks, where they valiantly defended their country at home and overseas. Goldberg’s story of those responsible for realizing America’s ideals offers timely lessons as our nation contends with division and strife today.

At the start of World War II, the greatest threat to freedom was Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. But for black Americans, the atrocities they experienced in their own country made it hard to believe that democracy would prevail—even if Germany was defeated. At the time, blacks in the U.S. faced legal and de facto segregation, employment and housing discrimination, and even lynching. In the Navy, they were barred from enlisting beyond the messman service until 1942 and were likewise forbidden from becoming commissioned officers.

Goldberg quotes one black American expressing what many others across the country felt about the nation’s hypocrisy about racial justice: “No clear-thinking Negro can afford to ignore our Hitlers here in America. I consider a man foolish who kills mosquitoes in the street and allows himself to be eaten up in his own bed by bed bugs.”

During the 1940s, efforts to integrate the armed forces were met with brutality. A few months after the Navy accepted blacks into the general enlisted ranks, for example, Army Private William Walker was shot in the head by police at Camp Van Dorn for a missing button on his uniform; he was the third black soldier killed at the camp that week. Meantime, numerous incidents of violent interactions between black servicemen and the police led to protests-turned-riots across the nation, leading to the arrest of hundreds of black Americans and the shooting of dozens.

In 1940, George Clinton Cooper, one of the 13 officers, was nearly denied employment as a sheet-metal instructor because of the color of his skin. When he demonstrated his acumen by completing a week’s worth of work in two days, however, supervisors agreed to hire him. Cooper’s work ethic translated well to the Navy, where in enlisted training, the intelligence of black men was immediately discounted due to lower rates of literacy and swimming proficiency among incoming candidates. (Never mind that many cities offered blacks fewer educational opportunities, plus limited access to public pools, which were frequently “whites only.”) And yet, to the surprise of the Navy’s senior officers, black men like Cooper made up for their disadvantaged position “through their greater earnestness and effort.” Exceeding a standard of “good enough” continued into officer training for the Golden Thirteen. Goldberg explains how 16 men entered the training, passing with the highest average of any class in Navy history. The Navy expected the men to mirror the one-fourth attrition rate of white officer candidates. Despite being proven wrong, it decided, with no explanation, to commission only 12 and make one a warrant officer.

Once the men were granted the opportunity of leadership in the naval officer ranks, Goldberg explains, strict limitations were imposed on them. Their commission included no ceremony or celebration. They were initially barred from entering the officer’s club. For months they were limited to clerical, rather than sea, duties.

Throughout officer training, the men realized that the obstacles wouldn’t cease upon graduation. Nevertheless, they approached the challenge with poise and composure. “We were the foot in the door for the other blacks, and we were determined not to be the ones responsible for having the foot removed,” said Golden Thirteen member Samuel Barnes. Their efforts paid off: in 1971, just 27 years after commissioning the first black officers, the Navy had its first black admiral.

The lesson of The Golden Thirteen is the importance of commitment to achieving actionable justice. America didn’t secure civil rights through passive support of racial equality; overcoming injustice required a sense of responsibility from those who could make an impact. Eleanor Roosevelt empathized with the injustice inflicted on black Americans; the First Lady pressured her husband to integrate the armed forces. Lieutenant John Dille, Jr., a white officer, volunteered to train the men to become officers. Dille was regarded by the Golden Thirteen as a morale booster, a mentor, and a friendly face when few were visible. Decades after World War II, Dille worked to have the training camp’s intake center dedicated to the Golden Thirteen as a tribute to their legacy for future generations of sailors.

Race continues to define American life today, as has become painfully clear recently. Unity will require a common understanding of goals and responsibilities. In this turbulent climate, The Golden Thirteen invites readers to reflect on how far we’ve come as a nation, while offering models of courage and excellence that remain highly relevant.

Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

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