Samuel L. Gravely Jr. Biography
At the peak of his career, Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. was the highest-ranking African American officer in the U.S. Navy, a three-star vice admiral. Even after his retirement, he maintained the commanding presence that he had honed during his 38 years in the military. Throughout his long career, Gravely was not only the first African American officer to become an admiral, but was also the first to serve on—and later command—a fighting ship. His many decorations, honors, and awards attest to his success.
Born in 1922 in Richmond, Virginia, Gravely came from a family committed to government service. His father, Samuel L. Gravely Sr., was a postal worker, and his siblings worked at various government posts with the Veterans Administration and the Internal Revenue Service. After a short stint at the post office himself, Gravely responded to the call to arms issued during the Second World War and joined the U.S. Navy.
Interrupting his education at Virginia Union University, Gravely enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942. He quickly rose to officer rank. After boot camp at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois, he attended Officer Training Camp at the University of California at Los Angeles, and then midshipman school at Columbia University. He was the first African American to reach the rank of captain, and when he boarded his first ship in May of 1945, he became its first black officer.
After serving as a communications, electronics, and personnel officer, Gravely left the navy in 1946 to get married and return to school; in 1948, he earned a degree in history from Virginia Union University. He had no immediate plans to return to the navy. After graduation, he told Ebony, "I planned to teach and coach, but took a job in the post office instead. I guess the urge for government service was just that overpowering." The same year he graduated, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order to integrate the armed forces. The following year, the U.S. military stepped up recruitment of African Americans. In 1952, Gravely returned to active duty on board the USS Iowa.
Gravely's tenure in the naval service was tainted by the difficulties of racial discrimination. He learned early on that he was, as he told Ebony magazine, "saving America for democracy, but not allowed to participate in the goddamn thing." As a new recruit, he was trained in a segregated unit; as an officer, he was barred from living in the Bachelor's Officers' Quarters. As far back as 1945, when his first ship reached its berth in Key West Florida, he was specifically forbidden entry into the Officers' Club on the base. President Truman's executive order prohibited segregation, but it could not eliminate racism and hypocrisy among military staff members. Long after Truman's executive order, the unofficial policy in the navy was to have as few blacks as possible on any ship. Furthermore, African-American officers were limited to work on large ships.
Gravely had received a very friendly reception when he reported for duty aboard the battleship USS Iowa in 1952, but he later found a letter from the Bureau of Naval Personnel to the Iowa's commanding officer, instructing the commander to brief the ship's personnel before Gravely's arrival. Gravely knew that the briefing pertained to his race, and he later told Ebony: "I gave the letter to my roommate and suggested that it be returned to the ship's office. When he saw that I had read the letter, he immediately began to tell me about the briefing, how delighted everyone was with my being assigned, and how I must have been a fine guy to have earned a commission. He added: 'There was one problem. No one wanted to live with you, so I volunteered.'"
Gravely survived the indignities of racial prejudice and displayed unquestionable competence as a naval officer. He eventually earned a reputation as an expert in naval communications. Early in his career, Gravely served with distinction as a radio specialist aboard the Iowa, where the ship's communications officer was more interested in his qualifications than his color: "I don't care if he's black, white, or green, all I want is a radio officer!" the senior officer once declared, according to Ebony. (This man later became godfather to Gravely's eldest child.) Several years later, on board the USS Seminole, a visitor to the ship remarked that Gravely, then working as operations officer, was "colored." Ebony reported that the ship's captain replied with a completely straight face: "Is that right? What color is he?"
In 1961 Gravely became temporary skipper of the USS Theodore E. Chandler, making him the first black naval officer to command a ship. A few months later, in January of 1962—having achieved the rank of lieutenant commander—he was assigned to the USS Falgout, the first fighting ship to be commanded by an African American officer. As a full commander, he again made naval history in 1966 as the first black commander to lead a ship—the USS Taussig—into direct offensive action.
The crew of the Taussig was skeptical at first. "I think," Gravely told Ebony magazine, that "initially they [were] interested in two things: can the Old Man take the ship out, and can he get it back in port." After proving himself, he was accepted by his staff. In fact, they quickly grew to like his style of command, because he gave officers more responsibility than they were usually allowed. One crew member noted in Ebony, "It makes a big difference in morale. There is a much freer atmosphere when junior officers can perform certain tasks. If junior officers never get a chance to run the ship, pretty soon they are senior officers and they still don't know how." Gravely said in the same article, "You have to have faith in your executive officers and department heads, and they have to have it in their junior officers."
Gravely also demanded very high standards from his crew. In a 1977 address to navy officers, as quoted in Ebony, he stated: "We must improve our individual understanding of our fundamental warfare skills. We must improve the performance and productivity of our people. And we must continue to stress the very rudiments of our profession—smartness, appearance, seamanship, and most importantly, pride. Pride in ourselves! Pride in our ships! And pride in our Navy!"
In 1976 Gravely became the commander of the entire third fleet. He was in charge of over 100 ships, 60,000 officers, and oversaw more than 50 million square miles of ocean, or about one-fourth of the earth's surface. His 32 official duties included protecting the western sea approaches to the United States, guarding merchant ships in the area, and providing emergency search and rescue aid. He also developed and improved fleet tactics, organized and scheduled ship movements and port visits, and conducted anti-submarine warfare operations. The stress of these responsibilities was inescapable, but he fought to relieve them through exercise when he had the time. He was also known to drink up to thirty cups of coffee a day and chain-smoke.
In 1978 Gravely became the director of the Defense Communications Agency and was able to move home to Virginia from his base in Hawaii. After his official retirement in 1980, he kept active as a military adviser and corporate consultant. Between 1984 and 1987, Gravely served as the executive director of education and training for the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Associations (AFCEA). A year later, he became an adviser to Potomac Systems Engineering, and he continued to travel the world, speaking at conferences on leadership. "I still do things for the military," he told Ebony in 1990. "I still have great affection for the military. The military gave me an opportunity to do some things that I thoroughly enjoyed."
As a trailblazer for African Americans in the military arena, Gravely fought for equal rights quietly but effectively, letting his actions speak for him. After four decades of service in the U.S. Navy, he held no illusions about the status of race relations in the military but, according to Ebony, readily admitted: "I basically grew up in the military.… The military did a lot for me, and hopefully, I did some things for it." Gravely died on October 22, 2004, at the naval hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. In a fitting tribute, the obituary on the U.S. Department of Defense Web site quoted Gravely's formula for success: "My formula is simply education plus motivation plus perseverance."
Chicago Tribune, July 8, 1973.
Crisis, December 1973; March 1983.
Ebony, July 1966; September 1977; November 1985; December 1990; June 2, 1997.
Jet, February 5, 1970; June 5, 1975; August 28, 1980; November 8, 2004; November 15, 2004.
"Obituary," United States Department of Defense, www.defenselink.mil/releases/2004/nr20041022-1434.html (January 31, 2005).
"Vice-Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr.," Naval Historical Center, www.history.navy.mil/bios/gravely.htm (January 31, 2005).
—Robin Armstrong and
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