On Feb. 3, Capt. Janet H. Days was officially installed as the 51st commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk, a station that keeps more than 67,000 military and civilian personnel employed. (Photo by Old Dominion University)

By AFRO Staff

Take a short walk through military history and you’re bound to notice the contributions of African-American soldiers and sailors. 

In a country that used race to decide everything from education to water fountains, African Americans joined the armed forces at surprising rates, looking to do more than labor in the fields.

They were Black- but they knew they had heart.

They were Negroes- but they knew they were filled to the brim with grit and overflowing with courage.

While some undoubtedly did what they could to dodge drafts– many more arrived to serve of their own volition– a theme you will see time in time again throughout history. 

“Over 10 percent of the Continental Navy was African American during the American Revolution—a higher percentage than in the ground services. Even greater numbers of African Americans served aboard state naval vessels and privateers,” according to the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). “The Continental Navy recruited both free and enslaved Blacks, partly out of a need for laborers and partly because many African Americans were experienced seafarers, having sailed before with the Royal Navy, state navies, and merchantmen. Black sailors usually performed menial tasks on ships but some served in other roles, including carpenters and even pilots.”

The history of Black people is in fact American history from the very beginning.

Some of the first people fighting for the formation of the United States were African Americans, who still today help make the United States military branches the force that they are today. 

“One of the most famous African-American [seamen] from this era was James Forten, who enlisted on a privateer as a powder boy, and spent time on a British prison barge. After his release, he became a successful sailmaker in Philadelphia and a prominent abolitionist,” according to NHHC.

During the Civil War, one of the first men to demonstrate unbelievable bravery and courage was Robert Smalls. On the night of May 13, 1862 he put an end to the enslavement of himself and his loved ones by stealing a Confederate ship and sailing it into Union territory.

In the 1940s the AFRO covered the cause of sailors looking for equal opportunity in the U.S. Navy while also evangelizing their courageous acts abroad to the local folk back home. 

The AFRO sent war correspondents around the world in the 1940s.

In March 1942 the AFRO printed a story with the headline and subhead  “The United States is our Navy, and no other American can say to any other American, “you stay out.”

By 1948, President Harry Truman had signed an executive order desegregating all armed forces. 

That same year, Jessie L. Brown would become the first Black Navy Pilot, serving his country for only a short time before being killed in 1950 during the Korean War. 

But we weren’t just pilots and soldiers, there were also members of the intelligence community. Harriet Tubman was a Union spy during the Civil War, paving the path for women in the intelligence field decades later. 

In 1965 the AFRO interviewed Specialist Doris Allen, a “top-flight linguist with unusual ability to read, comprehend and speak languages she has not studied.” Allen joined the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and was attached to Company A. 519th Military Intelligence Battalion at Ft. Bragg, N.C.

While there are considerably fewer Black spies and codebreakers than Black fighter pilots, sailors, Seabee members and so on and so forth, the work they did was remarkable even for today’s time.

In 2023, the contributions and great Black “firsts” continue. 

On Feb. 3 Capt. Janet H. Days, 54, was officially installed as the 51st commanding officer of Naval Station Norfolk. Days now leads the 106-year-old base, a station that keeps more than 67,000 military and civilian personnel employed.