By Rona Marech
Sep 20, 2008 at 12:00 am
Some had flags on their lapels and “veteran” stitched on their caps. Others leaned on canes or sat in wheelchairs. As the crowd watched and cameras flashed, they gazed out proudly, shoulders back.
For the dozens of men who gathered on the stairway of the Naval Academy’s Bancroft Hall rotunda, it had been a long time getting to that moment.
Once, they were all in the Navy’s messmen branch, which for decades was restricted to African-American and Filipino men. On land and sea, at war and at peace, the sailors dutifully prepared and served food and tended to officers’ living quarters.
Well past the date when the Navy was officially desegregated, they had few opportunities to advance because of their race. All too often, they were unappreciated and unrecognized.
“If you had told me that they would give a plaque to messboys in 1940 when I was here, I would have thought you were insane,” said Chester A. Wright, 86, who had traveled from California to witness the unprecedented event. “It’s awesome.”
Wright, who retired from the Navy after 21 years as a master chief steward, stood tall in a white cap and gold cummerbund as the plaque was unveiled. “This marker is dedicated to all of our shipmates and unsung trailblazers of African and Asian-Pacific ancestry who proudly served with honor and distinction as Messmen and Stewards,” it reads in part.
The idea of honoring the stewards was first suggested by Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina in a letter to the academy’s superintendent, and was promoted by Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who gave a speech at the dedication. The superintendent, Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, who has been emphasizing diversity at the academy, took up the cause.
“History forgotten is history relived,” said Cmdr. John Fuller, the academy’s 4th battalion officer. “We have to educate the current generation about how the past generation was.”
The Naval Academy’s willingness to talk about its discriminatory policies of yore and make such symbolic gestures is unusual and significant, several academics said.
“The Navy is certainly changing, but it still has some difficulties coming to terms with the past,” said Glenn Knoblock, a historian who wrote Black Submariners in the United States Navy, 1940-1975. “This is a good step in the right direction.”
In the first half of the 20th century, African-Americans and Filipinos were alternately recruited into the Navy and then shut out, depending partly on the military’s wartime manpower needs and the status of the Philippines, which gained independence from the United Sates in 1946, Knoblock said. They were only permitted to be mess attendants.
Because they were not citizens, Filipinos continued to serve exclusively as messmen – later, they were called stewards, then mess management specialists, then culinary specialists – until 1974. The lot of African-Americans, on the other hand, began to change in 1948, when President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the army.
Nonetheless, it continued to be difficult for black sailors to advance and switch into other jobs. Whites were not steered into the steward branch until the early 1970s, said Richard E. Miller, who wrote The Messman Chronicles.
“They just could not bring themselves to assign white recruits to do the job blacks were doing,” Miller said.
Angelito Gregorio, who is Filipino, joined the Navy in 1970 and was a steward at the Naval Academy in 1973. For five years, he could not advance despite his best efforts, he said, but at the end of the decade – around the time civilians took over the mess hall duty at the academy – he saw a turnaround, he said. He retired after 20 years as a chief personnelman.
“I only suffered for five years. After that, things were given to me because of my ability,” he said at the ceremony. “It’s good to see all these folks, especially the older ones, because they suffered the most.”
He might have been talking about William A. Allison, 87, who stood by himself for part of the reception. He joined the Navy in 1941 and his first assignment was at the base at Pearl Harbor. Being at Wednesday’s event was a bit of a throwback to a complicated time, he said, and he couldn’t decide quite how he felt and whether attending was a good idea.
“I could have been a seaman,” said Allison, who is African-American. “I was just as smart as some of the others.”
He looked at some of his fellow messmen. “It’s not exactly something to be proud of,” he said and shrugged. “I’m just here.”
For 10 years, until he left the Navy in 1966, John D. Leak Jr. tried repeatedly to transfer out of the stewards branch, he said, but never succeeded.
“I took the exam every year,” said Leak, 70, of Harrisburg, Pa. “I received pretty good scores, but every time I went up for promotion, they claimed it was frozen … They didn’t want us to give orders to any white sailors.”
Nonetheless, he served with dignity, he said. Leak, a retired state police officer who was a messman at the academy in 1957, attended the dedication ceremony with his wife. “We weren’t ashamed of our work,” he said. “We did the best job possible.”
Like many fellow messmen, he said he is not bitter. The Navy was responsible for sparking some of his dreams and the successful career that followed his service, he said.
“True, I never had the chance to be promoted, but it had tremendous impact,” he said. “I call it positive.”