Sunday, February 2, 2014

Football Dreams: Navy's First Black Admiral

Review by Bill Doughty

Long before becoming Navy's first black admiral, Samuel L. Gravely Jr., had his sights set on becoming a football coach.  He loved the game, but his father -- "deathly afraid" about injury -- didn't want him to play.  Gravely Sr., a World War I veteran and Pullman Porter, thought his son's future lay with the Post Office.
Gravely's biography, "Trailblazer: The U.S. Navy's First Black Admiral," is the heartfelt tale of how education, hard work, perseverance and luck came together for a remarkable and inspirational leader, whose training to become an officer actually preceded the Golden Thirteen (first naval officers).

Gravely played football despite his father's fears.  He had to hide his uniform behind the refrigerator during high school -- till his father found it.  

After high school he attended the all-black Virginia Union University in his hometown of Richmond Virginia where football changed his life.
"One difference from high school was that I was able to play football without my father knowing it.  The college had a gym with lockers, so it was no longer a case of trying to hide my uniform at home.  One of the football trips in 1940 had beneficial consequences down the road.  At the time, my sister Christie was going to school at Virginia State College in Petersburg.  I went over there once with a bunch of football players, and my sister introduced me to one of her roommates, Alma Clark.  Several years later, Alma and I were married..."
One year later, World War II started in the Pacific with Imperial Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941.  Gravely enlisted in the Navy after the Navy announced a new policy (April 7, 1942) that it would accept black Sailors into general service ratings).
As a young man in 1942.

It was a giant leap for the young man whose only life experiences were in the segregated south where every school he attended was all black and where he had to sit in the back of the streetcar or bus but in the front of the train, "which was the first place the coal hit."

At Great Lakes Naval Training Station and Hampton Institute Gravely excelled in study, but learned "I wasn't as technically minded as I thought I was."  He came out as a nonrated fireman. The East Coast would have seemed like a natural selection as a duty station.

"But I was influenced by one of my roommates to look in another direction," Gravely writes.  "[Roger] Gibbons had been a schoolteacher.  He'd been one of the great football players of Prairie View A&M, a black college in Texas ..." Gibbons suggested they take Horace Greeley's advice and "Go West, young man." They asked for and got orders to San Diego, which at the time was even more segregated than Richmond, he writes.

Gravely studied at UCLA. He considered his future and began taking premed classes, temporarily questioning his childhood dream of becoming a football coach.

He followed opportunity back to New York and Asbury Park, New Jersey and excelled as a midshipman, studying at Columbia University.  He expresses regret that instead of an assignment at sea in 1944 he was assigned to teach back at Great Lakes.

Alma and Sam Gravely married on Feb. 12, 1946, Roanoke, VA.
Soon, though, Gravely was serving aboard PC-1264, a submarine chaser homeported at Staten Island, New York City and operating along the East Coast, especially near Florida.  PC-1264 and USS Mason were the only two combatant ships with black officers aboard during WWII.

When PC-1264 went to Norfolk for a shipyard period to prepare for deployment to the Pacific, Gravely struck up a friendship with a worker there and joined his semi-pro football team, the Brown Bombers.  Sadly, while on liberty in Miami, he was arrested for "impersonating an officer" because the white military policeman had never seen a "Negro Navy officer."

After WWII, like a lot of his contemporaries, Gravely decided to leave the military and use the GI Bill to continue his education.  He attended Virginia Union and got serious about his studies, majoring in history.  And he played football.  His coach was Sam Taylor, who had been the coach for his former roommate Roger Gibbons at Prairie View.

Another turning point came in 1949 when Gravely was invited to come back on active duty.  The year before President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order (9981) which said, "It is hereby declared that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."

It was also a turning point for civil rights in the nation. Like a quarterback (Russell Wilson) and his father would ask in the next generation: "Why not me?  Why not us?"

Gravely became a coach and leader not of football players but of Sailors.  He would go on from recruiter duty to serve aboard the battleship USS Iowa, heavy cruiser USS Toledo, USS Seminole and USS Theodore E. Chandler.  He would serve throughout the Korean, Vietnam and Cold Wars.

USS Falgout in Pearl Harbor
He made history January 31, 1962 when he became CO of USS Falgout in Pearl Harbor.  "I guess it's been said that this was the first time a black had command of a U.S. Navy ship since Robert Smalls captured a small frigate out of the Charleston Harbor and turned it over to the Union forces during the Civil War," Gravely writes.

In 1963 he was invited to the White House where he and Alma met President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson.  He was in Washington DC as part of the Emancipation Proclamation centennial celebration.

Gravely next served at the Naval War College and Defense Communications Agency.  He commanded USS Taussig and then USS Jouett, a guided-missile frigate, later redesignated a guided-missile cruiser.

In 1971, Gravely was frocked to rear admiral, blazing another trail for naval officers.  He served as Director of Naval Communications and Commander of Cruiser-Destroyer Group Two and then Eleventh Naval District.  

In September 1976, back in Pearl Harbor, Gravely assumed command of U.S. Third Fleet, based in Hawaii. (Since then C3F has relocated to San Diego.)

Details of Gravely's assignments, new technologies, housing challenges, duty in the Pacific, "racial disturbances in the fleet," and the profound influence of CNO Adm. Zumwalt and his Z-grams are all included in "Trailblazer."

In addition to his accomplishments, Gravely shares his challenges and personal tragedies.  In 1978 his son Robbie was killed while driving on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor.

"Trailblazer" is written with Paul Stillwell, who in the preface notes that Gravely was born just 60 years after the Civil War.  The afterward is a very personal account by Alma B. Gravely, written in 2010, of her life together with her "Sammie."  Admiral Gravely passed away in 2004.

In 2009, the Samuel L. Gravely Jr. Elementary School was dedicated in Prince William County, Virginia.  Inside the front door of the school is the motto that Alma says expresses the admiral's philosophy:  "Success = Education + Motivation + Perseverance."

The dust jacket of "Trailblazer," published by the Naval Institute Press, notes:  "The U.S. Navy commissioned the guided-missile destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) in 2010 in tribute to a man who relished destroyer service and set an example for generations of Navy men and women."  Read a 2014 Naval History Blog post here, written by historian Dr. Regina T. Akers.

And on a separate note, about football...
(Samuel L. Gravely Sr.'s concerns about the dangers of football, expressed to his son more than 70 years ago, are echoed all over the news this Superbowl weekend as Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks defeated Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. President Obama said if he had a son he wouldn't let him play tackle football, and even Brett Favre said something similar as more information comes out about the long-term damage to the brain, including memory loss, from concussions. Fans know the story of Junior Seau and they are hearing from Joe Namath and other former players.  Troy Aikman and John Lynch, high-profile Fox broadcasters, are asking for more information from the NFL. Don't expect the NFL to be complacent or take safety for granted. Already, the game has evolved thanks to new rules and steep fines against violent hits, helmet-to-helmet contact and late hits and other unsportsmanlike conduct. Too much money is at stake for the game to not evolve further. Imagine how much football has already progressed and changed for the better since it began, thanks to instant replay, for example.  As for the violence, just watch rugby to see how physical a game can be without as many serious injuries. BD)

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