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When Naval Academy gave up Jim Crow
Question of the Day
BLUE & GOLD AND BLACK: RACIAL INTEGRATION OF THE U.S. NAVAL ACADEMY
By Robert J. Schneller Jr.
Texas A&M, $45, 437 pages
REVIEWED BY PAUL DICKSON
In the fall of 1872, a black man from North Carolina named James Henry Conyers was appointed to and accepted by the United States Naval Academy. He arrived in Annapolis with strict orders from the Ulysses S. Grant White House that he be treated with "the utmost consideration." However, shortly after arriving he was set upon by a score of midshipmen who beat and kicked him. The gang also attacked the two "colored attendants" who were appointed by the Naval Academy to protect him from his white classmates.
A single white cadet with a sword stopped that particular attack, but the following spring Conyers was stoned by fellow midshipmen. Four white midshipmen were discharged from the Academy. Two weeks later the press — which was following the Conyers appointment with great interest — reported that he had failed to pass his examinations and was being asked to leave the Academy. Accounts of his expulsion did not allude to the earlier assault, or the stoning.
Conyers was one of only three dozen blacks appointed to the Academy through World War II. Only six were actually admitted — Conyers and two others during the 1870s, two more in the 1930s and one in 1945. The first five were unmercifully hazed, assaulted and driven out before their first year was over.
Historian Robert Schneller's new book concentrates on the story of the integration of the Naval Academy in the years following World War II. His self-described "biographical approach" relies on correspondence, memoirs and the oral histories of dozens of African American midshipmen who recount their experiences in their own words.
"Blue & Gold and Black" traces the transformation of an institution that goes from an ugly Jim Crow environment ruled by a bigoted minority of midshipmen to one which strives to empower minorites. This transformation was not without social cost and black midshipmen bore the brunt of it, first only males and then the black women who were described as "double insults" because of race and gender.
He meshes this approach with information from the official records to produce a hybrid which perfectly suits this subject. As he explains in the introduction, most institutional history is written from the top down, while most social history is written from the bottom up. This book does it from both perspectives. The result is vivid history which blends the style of Studs Turkel with the rigor of the best academic writing.
Much to his credit, Mr. Schneller never flinches in getting to the truth of what was going on. He vividly describes one form of hazing so obscene and perverse that it cannot be mentioned in a family newspaper and cites hateful jibes and jokes directed at these men and women that make your skin crawl. That Mr. Schneller is a Navy historian working at the Naval Historical Center underscores how far we have come in exorcising the demon of racism from the military. Today, it can be argued that the military is the most successfully integrated element of our diverse society.
The power of this book is that it allows us to follow these men and women in their own words. Readers will meet some remarkable individuals whose ability to prevail and lead is inspiring. For example there is James Frezzell class of '68, a football player who during his plebe year was injured tackling running back Larry Czonka (later to post a legendary career with the Miami Dolphins).
Night after night Mr. Frezzell was subjected to targeted hazing — hour after hour of standing at attention (even during meals ) and doing pushups. Deprived of countless hours of normal study time, he was forced to study by flashlight and began losing weight — 25 pounds in two months. Several white midshipmen tried to help him but never through any direct action. His coachs and fellow football players did not intervene. Mr. Frezzell finally concluded that "keeping the team lily-white was more important to the upperclassmen on the team than winning."
His grades suffered and moments before he appeared before a panel which would expel him honorably for academic failure, he was advised by an officer that he should file a discrimination complaint against the Academy with a black Congressman. The officer had been watching the brutality but did nothing about it. "If you knew this was going on all year, why didn't you do something about it," we are told he thought, but did not say, at the time with his jaw agape.
He went on to graduate from college elsewhere and became a successful executive. Years later, as a member of the Naval Academy Alumni Association, he worked to recruit minority midshipmen. When Mr. Schneller asked him why he was willing to help he said, "It's the Christian way of doing things."
Despite such accounts, there are leaders here who serve as antidotes to the officers who are complicit — too timid, cowardly or racist — and choose to look the other way. CNO Elmo R. Zumwalt (1970-1974) and an Annapolis grad, class of 1943, came in at a time of turmoil — low morale, drug problems, racial tension and the departure from Vietnam — and issued one of his famous directives, known as Z-Grams, on Equal Opportunties in the Navy.
Z-66 targeted racism at every level of the service including Annapolis. With a great assist from Zumwalt, the Academy was finally truly on its way to becoming an institution where equal opportunity was a fundamental tenet.
There are heroic midshipmen as well — some are white, such as star quarterback Roger Staubach who set a new standard for accepting blacks both on campus and in town — but the real heroes are the black midshipmen, male and female, whose stories are as varied as the people who tell them. As Mr. Schneller shows, the vast majority are highly motivated men and women who despite being subjected to harassment and bigotry prevail and emerge as leaders not only because of — but often despite — their days in Annapolis.
Paul Dickson is a former Navy Officer whose most recent work of narrative history was "The Bonus Army: An American Epic," which he wrote with Thomas B. Allen.
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