From the beginning of United States history, until the end of World War I, when black Americans enlisted in the US Navy, (minus the years 1919 – 1932 when they were barred), they went in for general service. These sailors were placed in either the Navy’s Messman’s or Steward’s branch, segregating them from the rest of the Navy community and banning them from becoming commissioned officers.
In 1941, things began to change. June of that year, FDR signed Executive Order 8802 which prohibited any government agency from discrimination based on race. In January 1944, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Adlai Stevenson, put pressure on the Navy to offer a 2-month accelerated (cram) course for officer training. This course was to be offered to 16 black enlisted men at Camp Robert Smalls located in Illinois at the Recruit Training Center Great Lakes.
Though the course involved a demanding pace, the entire group passed; however, only 12 were commissioned at the rank of Ensign. A 13th individual was appointed a Warrant Officer. The group consisted of Graham Edward Martin, Charles Byrd Lear, Phillip George Barnes, Reginald E. Goodwin, George Clinton Cooper, William Sylvester White, John Walter Reagan, Jesse Walter Arbor, Dalton Louis Baugh, Frank Ellis Sublett, James Edward Hair, Samuel Edward Barnes, and Dennis Denmark Nelson. The commissioning heralded a major move forward on the part of the Navy regarding the status of blacks in the military and American society in general.
Though they were now officially officers, navy policy of that day prevented them from being assigned to combat ships because they were black. Rather than being treated as pioneers, they were looked upon more as pariahs. They were not accorded the same respect and privileges as the white officers and assigned menial tasks, such as overseeing labor gangs ashore. At the time the Golden Thirteen were commissioned, approximately 100,000 black Americans were listed among the enlisted ranks of the US Navy. Despite the discrimination they faced, these young men broke ground in the branch of the US Armed Forces which at the time was the most tradition-bound and segregated. One of the members went on to make a career of the navy and opened future doors to great individuals such as Admirals Lawrence Chambers and Joseph Reason.
Members of the Golden Thirteen not only made a contribution to the Navy during World War II, but to society afterwards. A good example of this is William Sylvester White. In 1935, White graduated from the University of Chicago with a law degree. From October 1943 to March 1946, White served in the US Navy as a Public Information Officer. In this capacity, he acted as go-between for the US Navy and the black media. Following his honorable discharge, White became a judge in Chicago’s appellate court. In 1972, he was honored as “Judge of the Year” by the Cook County Bar Association. He died on February 16, 2004.
In 1977, the first of numerous reunions were organized by members of the Golden Thirteen. Some of these were even promoted by Navy recruiters.
Beginning in 1986, memories from the eight surviving members of the Golden Thirteen were collected by oral historian Paul Stillwell. In 1987, the group’s legacy was honored as the last seven living members of the group gathered at the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command in Illinois to witness Building 1405 named “The Golden Thirteen.”
In 2006 (the year the last living member of the group – Ellis Sublett - died), ground was broken in North Chicago’s Veterans Memorial Park for a World War II memorial. Designed by Sutter Architects of Libertyville, it honors all veterans of the war. The memorial also contains special plaques to commemorate the Golden Thirteen, Doris Miller, and other legendary black patriots of that war.