Photo credits: U.S. Navy
Samuel Lee Gravely Jr. was a famous Navy commander who paved the way for African Americans in the military with a slew of firsts.
He became the first African American Navy Vice Admiral on April 27, 1971. Gravely was the first African American to command a Navy warship, the first African American to command a warship during combat, the first African American to command a Navy Fleet, and the first African American to achieve Flag Rank in the military. The Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Navy Commendation Medal, and Meritorious Service Medal are among his awards.
Samuel Gravely was born on June 4, 1922, in Richmond, Virginia. He spent three years at Virginia Union University, where he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African-American college fraternity founded in 1906. In 1942, he enrolled in the Naval Reserve as a fireman apprentice, postponing his studies.
Gravely was commissioned an Ensign in December 1944 after successfully completing the V-12 Program, a rigorous Midshipman school. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles, Pre-Midshipman school in New Jersey, and Columbia University’s Midshipman school during his officer training (New York). He was the first African American to be commissioned as a Naval Reserve Officer on the day of his graduation.
Officer Gravely’s initial duty was at Camp Robert Smalls in Illinois, where he was assigned as the Assistant Battalion Commander for new recruits. He went on to serve on the USS PC-1264, a segregated submarine chaser, commencing in 1945. He was discharged from active service in April 1946 and returned to Richmond, where he resumed his studies at Virginia Union University. He finished his undergraduate studies in 1948, getting a Baccalaureate degree in History.
President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 desegregating the US military on July 26, 1948. As a consequence, Officer Gravely was returned to active service the following year and assigned as a recruiter. He recruited within the local African American population when stationed in Washington, D.C. Officer Gravely was stationed aboard the Battleship Iowa and later the Cruiser Toledo as a communications officer during the Korean War after his duty as a recruiter.
Officer Gravely was promoted to the regular Navy from the Naval Reserve in 1955. He was appointed Commander of the USS Falgout (DER-324), a patrol ship that patrolled the Pacific Barrier between the Aleutian and Midway Islands, in 1962. Samuel Gravely assumed command of the USS Jouett (DLG-29) in May 1970, and the ship remained active throughout the Vietnam War. Captain Gravely was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral while serving as Commander aboard the USS Jouett in July 1971.
Vice Admiral Gravely was elevated again in September 1976, this time by President Richard Nixon to command the whole Third Fleet. As the Third Fleet Commander, he was in charge of 60,000 sailors and marines stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and controlled all activities aboard 100 Navy ships.
Vice Admiral Gravely served as Director of the Defense Communications Agency for his final tour of duty, which began in 1978 and ended in 1980. He handled the communications network connecting Washington, D.C., to allied locations across the globe as Director. Vice Admiral Gravely spent 38 years in the Navy in all. The Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer DDG-107 will be named in his honor when it is delivered in 2008.
Vice Admiral Samuel Lee Gravely died of complications from a stroke on October 22, 2004, at the National Naval Center in Bethesda, Maryland (Hurst, 2008).
Hurst, R. (2008, August 02). Samuel Lee Gravely (1922-2004). BlackPast.org. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/gravely-samuel-lee-1922-2004/