While Blacks served the U.S military for centuries, the Navy barred them from joining after World War I. As a matter of fact, starting in 1893, Black servicemen could only join the Messman and Steward’s branches. Executive Order 8802 would allow for Blacks to become an official part of the U.S. Navy and lead to the initial class: The Golden Thirteen.
Executive Order 8802
With the chances of the U.S. being drawn into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued executive order 8802. The order forced all government agencies to lift bans against Blacks serving.
It wasn’t until 1944 when the U.S. Navy actually got in line with it because of pressure from First lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson, Assistant Secretary of the Navy. This led to a two-month training program for Black recruits.
The Golden Thirteen
The training camp—Camp Robert Smalls—was located near North Chicago and produced sixteen servicemen. All would graduate from the program but only twelve were commissioned that March as Ensigns.
These included Jesse Arbor, Phillip George Barnes, Samuel Barnes, George Cooper, Reginald Goodwin, James Hair, Darion Ivy III, Graham Martin, Dennis Nelson, John Reagan, and William White. Charles Lear was commissioned as Warrant Officer out of the class. They are known as the Golden Thirteen.
Even though the order made it so that Blacks could serve in the Navy, it didn’t stop the branch from delegating them to lesser tasks, keeping them out of combat. In 1948, President Harry Truman desegregated the military. Between 1944 and 1948, the number of Black servicemen ballooned to 100,000.
The Golden Thirteen were honored with Building 1405 in 1987, a ceremony attended by the last seven members at the time. In 2006, a war memorial in their honor was built in North Chicago. That same year, the last remaining member of the Golden Thirteen, Frank Sublett, passed.