The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers

The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers


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The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers by Paul Stillwell

In January 1944 sixteen black enlisted men gathered at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois to begin a cram course that would turn them into the U.S. Navy's first African-American officers on active duty. The men believed they could set back the course of racial justice if they failed and banded together so all would succeed. Despite the demanding pace, all sixteen passed the course. Twelve were commissioned as ensigns and a thirteenth was made a warrant officer. Years later these pioneers came to be known as the Golden Thirteen, but at the outset they were treated more as pariahs than pioneers. Often denied the privileges and respect routinely accorded white naval officers, they were given menial assignments unworthy of their abilities and training. Yet despite this discrimination, these inspirational young men broke new ground and opened the door for generations to come.

In 1986, oral historian Paul Stillwell began recording the memories of the eight surviving members of the Golden Thirteen. Later he interviewed three white officers who served with and supported the efforts of the men during World War II. This book collects the stories of those eleven men. Introduced by Colin L. Powell, they tell in dramatic fashion what it was like to be a black American.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781591148401
Publisher: Naval Institute Press
Publication date: 05/15/2003
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 902,128
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Paul Stillwell is an independent historian and retired naval officer. He worked for thirty years at the U.S. Naval Institute as an oral historian and editor of Naval History magazine. He is the author or editor of a dozen books, including four on battleships and an award-winning volume on the Navy's first African American officers, The Golden Thirteen.

Read an Excerpt

The Golden Thirteen

Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 1993 United States Naval Institute
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1591148405

Chapter One

The Importance of Inspiration

Graham E. Martin

For many years Graham Martin and his wife, Alma, have lived quietly in a white frame house five miles north of the Indiana state capitol and the Hoosier Dome, home of football's Indianapolis Colts. Greeting a visitor in the mid-eighties, Martin pointed out that one of his legs was bowed and the other straight. Both knees had been damaged during the course of playing football; only one had been repaired surgically. By the late eighties Martin had been largely confined to a wheelchair and required regular visits from a physical therapist in an attempt to restore some movement to the damaged joints.

In a room nearby, Mrs. Martin was as friendly as her husband but unable to get out of bed because her long-time experience with multiple sclerosis left her immobile. Mr. Martin's physical problems have worsened because his unstinting devotion to his wife has frequently included lifting and carrying her. But as a proud and loving husband, he wasn't one to push off that chore on others. In recent years relatives and friends have, of necessity, provided a good deal of care for the Martins. Also, the Martins have chosen to remain in their longtime home rather than availing themselvesof the treatment they might find in an institution. Caring for the house is a difficult chore. Sadly, Martin is no longer able to attend the annual reunions of the Golden Thirteen. Even in his absence, though, the other members of the group think of him often, for he has earned their high respect.

Seeing Graham Martin in a wheelchair is a saddening experience, particularly when one thinks back on his earlier life as a football star and as the sort of man who would run through an obstacle course several times a day for recreation. During World War II he was skilled enough to play semipro football for the San Francisco Clippers. He held his own with linemen who had played in the National Football League before World War II. He competed under the name Jim Patterson, taking his wife's maiden name as a pseudonym because he preferred not to call attention to himself. In a way, that epitomizes Graham Martin, who is a person of quiet dignity and pride. Throughout his life he has looked for the opportunity to excel, but on his own terms-not in a flashy manner.

That same quality explains why he spent the bulk of his adult life as a high school teacher and coach, even though he had earlier had aspirations of being a college teacher and even a college president. For Graham Martin, the most important goal has been to make a contribution rather than to seek glory or recognition. Certainly his educational attainments qualified him to pursue a career as a college professor. In part he was denied that goal by circumstance. At a time in his life when he might have sought a doctorate, World War II sent him to a much different existence. After the war, a job at his high school alma mater in Indianapolis looked promising after a short stint as a college coach in West Virginia. He and his wife experienced racial discrimination in West Virginia and so decided to return home. Achievement was more important than status, and so it was that he remained in Indianapolis to serve as the best sort of influence for two generations of students.

Some members of the Golden Thirteen participated in the oral-history interviews with torrents of words. Graham Martin was much more reserved because he is not the sort to boast. Indeed, he needed to be drawn out because he prefers to let his actions speak for him. Those actions speak eloquently on his behalf.

I was born in Tennessee, January 18, 1917, in a small town called Tobacco Port, which was near Hopkinsville, Kentucky, on the Cumberland River. My mom was named Carrie Martin, and my dad was Charlie Martin. I had two sisters and one brother-four of us. We lived on a tobacco farm, and I recall as a very young child, four or five years old, helping my dad by pulling the worms off of tobacco. I was trying to get a can full of them so he could pay me a penny for it. I remember walking behind him in the field, following the plow and seeing the things that he'd turn up sometimes: a nest of little rabbits or a nest of snakes.

When I was a little boy, I would catch catfish in the Cumberland and go hunting with my collie dog. One fall day my father and I were walking back from work about dusk, and he noticed a couple of squirrels in a tree. He sent me home to get his shotgun. By the time I returned, it was almost completely dark. He shot up into the tree, and two squirrels came down. That sticks very vividly in my mind because I thought he was a superman. He didn't kill indiscriminately; it was always something we could use.

I think I was about seven or eight when my father died. I saw him open his mouth and gasp for breath, not seeming to get any. The older people took me out of the room, and that was the last I saw of him. I presume it was a heart attack or stroke. His loss weighed heavily on me and posed a real problem for my mother. She didn't think she could keep the farm up, so she decided to come to Indianapolis and get a job. We knew some other people who had come here previous to that time, and we just followed them.

The rest of the family stayed in Tennessee because they were older, so it was just my mother and I living together in Indianapolis. She got work as a seamstress and a maid-a domestic servant. While I was living on the farm, I had gotten a little education in a one-room country school. When I came here, I went to Public School 64 on the south side, and then I went to various schools throughout Indianapolis over the years. They were all 100 percent segregated. I wasn't a very good student initially because I was always playing hooky and doing other things.

I didn't have many outside interests, except maybe skipping school and going to cowboy movies for ten cents-if I paid at all. There was definitely a Jim Crow setup in Indianapolis during the 1920s and 1930s. For instance, when we went to a show downtown, we had to sit in the balcony. In order to prevent somebody from being burned up in a fire, they had those outside ladders that had weights on them and would swing down when people got on them. We would get a whip from an ice man, whip it up there, and pull the end of the fire escape down. Then we could go up and slip in the show.

During those early years, I belonged to a gang. We would get together and do little mischievous things. We didn't do anything that was really bad at first. It started out as something to do for fun, but, really, it got beyond that. From the time I was in the fourth or fifth grade, I began getting into more serious things, including stealing and breaking windows. My mother was definitely concerned about my being in the gang, but it was kind of hard to do anything because she had to work. Then I started to get in trouble with the courts.

I guess the worst thing I did was walk in a store and take some money. I went behind the counter and grabbed it and then ran down an alley. But what do you know? That alley had to have a dead end. I was busy trying to climb the wall, and a policeman was standing down there with his gun. He said, "Come down here, boy. How old are you?"

I said, "Twelve."

He said, "I wouldn't shoot you, but maybe somebody would, because you're big for your age. You're going to get killed."

I think that was the final straw. That was about my third time before the judge. He decided that since my mother had to work to make a living, he'd better put me in an orphans' home. That turned out to be my salvation, although I did take a while to adjust. I ran away a couple of times before I realized that this was really the best place for me.

Up to that point I didn't particularly like school, and when I got to the orphanage, I was back in the fourth grade. My fourth-grade teacher was excellent, a real inspiration to me. She took a lot of interest in me and suggested that I try to get good grades and behave myself and see how I liked that. So I tried it for six weeks, and I got all As and A+s. It felt wonderful to have teachers praise me, so I said, "I'm going to do this all the time."

From then on I started reading a lot of books. At the orphans' home you had to make up your bed, clean the floors, wash the windows, work in the kitchen, and clean the pots and pans, things like that. But after that, you were on your own. So I'd get a stack of books and just sit down and read them because I decided I wanted to be a teacher. So I'd read the books until everybody else admired what I read. I also acquired something else that I had lacked up to then, a sense of discipline. We had to do certain things at certain times, and if we didn't do those things, we were disciplined physically. So it was a real learning process in a number of ways.

The orphanage was on a big plot of land, and right next to it was school number 37; I went there until the eighth grade. At the end of each reporting period, the superintendent would always get the best report cards and have those kids come up front and stand, and she would say nice words about us. I liked that, so I just kept on trying to get the best grades I could. The principal there was a very positive influence also. She was really giving. She developed a jug band, and I played with it. A jug band involves, as the name would indicate, several jugs, a washboard, thimbles, some wooden sticks, drums, a piano, and a Jew's harp. The jugs had different amounts of water in them and thus different pitches; I played a jug. We performed for clubs all around town. We even went out of town to perform in clubs. We did very well, mostly playing for whites even though all the band members were black. As with the reading, I was getting more and more involved in positive things.

Up to the mid-1920s the schools in Indianapolis were integrated, but in 1926 they started building a new high school for Negro students; it was named for Crispus Attucks. I didn't know much about him at that time, but I learned later that he was one of the heroes of the Revolutionary War, the first man to fall in the Boston Massacre. In fact, I later spent a good deal of my life teaching in that school.

When I was in grade school, I really followed what the people were doing in Crispus Attucks High School. I would hear about the scholars and the great football players and what they did. So I aspired to do the same thing. I think I had been in that orphans' home about four years when I graduated from the grade school and went into high school. Naturally, we had a black staff, black principal, black everything. The principal was a great, great inspiration. He stressed the importance of education, saying, "That's the way you get out of your cycle of poverty."

The teachers were all that way too. They would spend extra time with us. They didn't give us anything at all; we had to earn it. But they would give you that extra effort to help you, particularly the math teachers, the history teachers, the science teachers, those basic subjects. Their theme was that we had to work harder than white people to succeed. There were two strikes against us to start with, so we had to use that last strike. Go in there and don't ask for anything, just do the job.

As for the segregation, I would describe my attitude then as one of disappointment. I didn't have time for resentment because that wouldn't have served any purpose, but neither did I really accept the situation. For instance, I would have liked to have played the other local high schools in sports to see if we could have beaten them. I think so, but we never got a chance to prove it. We had some terrific teams. That adversity did have an advantage because it got me to St. Louis; to Tulsa, Oklahoma; to Owensboro, Kentucky; to Lexington, Kentucky, so we could play against quality black teams.

Even so, the trips still reminded us of our status. We would take along sandwiches, and, of course, they would give out on a long trip. On one long trip we stopped in a restaurant in Terre Haute, Indiana. Some of the guys on the team were feeling a little mischievous, so they put salt in the mustard and played around a little bit. The proprietor called the police, and they got hold of one of our coaches. He had been a great football player up East. He was a Phi Beta Kappa, and he was really a fine role model. He was trying to explain to the police that we were just boys and that we were just messing around, but they hauled him out of the restaurant and took him somewhere. I guess he was able to explain it to them because eventually he came back and we left. But it was very disturbing to see him dragged out of the restaurant and humiliated.

I must have been in the orphanage for close to eight years. I was about ready to graduate from high school before I got out. I believe I got out in 1936 and moved back with my mother. She had been able to make it during the Depression because when President Franklin D. Roosevelt came in, his administration established some new programs. One of them was called the Works Progress Administration. People worked hard to do whatever they were skilled in, so she was hired away from working in a restaurant to do sewing, which she was very good at. She helped make blankets and things for the Army as well as products like bed linens to be used in hospitals. She got a big check of $38.75 a month.

It was much more money than she could make anywhere else, and that was the thing that enabled me to go back and live with her. She was able to take care of me better then. Of course, by then I didn't need much taking care of because I was older and established in my mind what I was going to do. Besides, I was always trying to find some kind of job myself. While I was in school, for instance, I got involved in the Youth Progress Administration. It was designed for promising youngsters who were having trouble financially. So they would let us work around the school-doing such things as helping in the cafeteria, washing windows, or otherwise making the building look pretty.

By the time I was in high school, I wasn't in any trouble at all because I had completely changed around from my early youth. Since you ask, it might be worth mentioning that I served in several leadership roles because that has some bearing on my later experience in the Navy. I was superintendent of my Sunday school for a while, and in high school I was president of the boxing club, president of the student council, president of the French club four or five clubs-and president of the graduation class. If I didn't run for a position, somebody nominated me. I learned parliamentary procedure pretty well and acquired some organizational skills, and those qualities stood me in good stead.


Excerpted from The Golden Thirteen Copyright © 1993 by United States Naval Institute
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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"A fascinating collection of reminiscences." —-Library Journal

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