First black Navy grad sees few like him at the academy School still falls short of secretary's goal for minority enrollment.

March 17, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

These days, at age 70, Wesley Brown mostly likes to tinker on his computer, read books ordered off the Internet and play tennis with fellow retirees, including one 95-year-old.

But for a few weeks each year, the phone rings and e-mail messages flash in the former Navy engineer's Washington apartment. Will you speak to our church? Visit our school? Tell us what it was like to be the first African-American graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy?

The requests come each February -- Black History Month -- and among this year's calls was one from the Naval Academy, which is struggling to continue what Brown started a half-century ago.

African-American midshipmen feel they're still trailblazing in a racially imbalanced military. They say that not enough blacks have followed in Brown's wake, and that racial discrimination and insensitivity track them through their four years at the academy.

Of nearly 4,000 midshipmen, 6.5 percent are black -- well below Secretary of the Navy John H. Dalton's goal of 12 percent. African-American midshipmen say there aren't enough black officers and role models on the Yard -- none of 33 officers ranked captain or higher last year was a member of a minority group. The Minority Midshipmen Study Group was, until recently, chaired by a white officer. And blacks have been under-represented among student leaders, or "stripers."

The academy has acknowledged these shortcomings by recruiting minority students more aggressively and hiring a new minority recruitment director, Don Montgomery, who recently returned from a cross-country tour of high schools. Still, Montgomery said the academy is competing with other top colleges also looking for promising minority students.

"We'd love for the diversity of the academy to be reflective of society, but we're not there yet," said Montgomery, one of nine black graduates in the Class of 1974; at that time, fewer than 75 blacks had graduated after Brown.

A scarcity of black faces at the academy creates an atmosphere where one in six black Mids say they've suffered from incidents stemming from racial prejudice, ranging from off-color jokes to physical assault. A survey last year found that a third of black midshipmen considered racial prejudice a serious academy problem; 24 percent said racial prejudice impeded their development as a midshipman.

"The doors aren't open," said Quintin Jones, a black midshipman from Memphis, Tenn., who is in his final year at the academy. "They're cracked, but they're not fully open."

In the wide range of problems, most are subtle -- jokes or insensitivities, he said. Worse is the lack of black faces. "There's a lack of minority officers to look up to as role models and mentors," said Jones, who heads the Midshipmen's Black Studies Club.

Brown, who walked through the academy gates in 1945, said some Mids tell him today that they fear they're viewed as part of a quota system.

"One thing some of the midshipmen feel is that with affirmative action being resented by a lot of people, sometimes there's an attitude that they're not as qualified as the whites, even though they take the same exams and classes," Brown said.

Indeed, a committee appointed last year to review academy problems found a "perception among some of the white male majority that standards are compromised in order to admit more minorities, and that those who are admitted are less qualified." The committee recommended even stronger recruiting -- possibly beginning with ninth-graders -- as well as promoting more minority students and Navy officers to leadership positions at the academy, and taking stronger action against discrimination complaints.

Recruitment efforts are aimed at reaching Dalton's 12 percent goal. Since 1989, 5.8 percent of the academy's graduates have been black. That has provided the 390,000-person Navy with a limited pool of black officers ascending the ranks. Despite recent high-profile promotions of the first black four-star admiral and the first black female admiral, 6 percent of Navy officers are black while nearly 20 percent of enlisted sailors are black, according to the Pentagon's Bureau of Naval Personnel.

Gejuan Sweat, an African-American midshipman from Harlem, Ga., who is a senior at the academy, said black female officers are "completely rare" at the academy -- there's only one, and before January there were none. "Out in the fleet, who knows, there may be people who've never seen a black officer before, much less a female," she said.

Brown said it's disappointing to see the Navy stalled after it opened so many doors to blacks during and after World War II.

"I saw very few white people growing up" near Washington's Logan Circle, said Brown. "But I think a lot changed as a result of World War II. Blacks got a chance to get meaningful jobs. A lot of people prior to World War II never had a chance to leave the place they were born."

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