Blacks were barred from serving the U.S. Navy for several years before the issuing of Executive Order 8802 in June 1941. As a result, a training camp was needed for new Black recruits since training itself was still very segregated. This led to the establishment of Camp Robert Smalls.
Camp Robert Smalls
The camp was set up following an order issued on April 21, 1942, by Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox. Camp Robert Smalls was located on the grounds of the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, Illinois. Its name is in honor of the Black Civil War hero, Robert Smalls. Enlistment began June 1, 1942, and rallied a class of 277 under Lieutenant Commander Daniel Armstrong.
Of the 277 who enlisted, 222 finished training that September. Out of the 222 who finished training, 102 moved on to specialized training. In those trainees was Robert Small’s great-grandson Edward Estes Davidson. There was a belief that no one in the initial class of becoming commissioned.
In January 1944, the Navy responded to pressure from the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Adlai Stevenson to begin a two-month program to training commissioned officers. This class saw the graduation of the Golden Thirteen, the first Black commissioned officers.
With the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, Camp Robert Smalls shut down soon afterward.