Naval Academy graduate prepares series of lectures, exhibit highlighting achievements of African-American officers

Standing tall to salute black history

January 24, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

As one of a small group of black students at the Naval Academy in the early 1970s, Jim Jackson said he felt isolated at times, with little access to some of the cultural underpinnings he valued growing up in a community of African-Americans.

On Sundays, he initially attended mandatory chapel among a sea of white parishioners at a worship service he found unfamiliar and staid. And when Saturdays finally came, there weren't any venues in the community "where you could go to hear good soul music like James Brown."

Jackson and a group of black and Puerto Rican midshipmen formed their own 13-part band, complete with horns, guitars, drums and bongo and a quartet reminiscent of the Four Tops. It was one of many improvisational flourishes that made those four years a little easier.

More than three decades later, Jackson, a college admissions adviser at Anne Arundel Community College, enjoys speaking to groups about his past and forming exhibits that celebrate the successes of black academy graduates who went on to reach admiral.

"None of these people are mentioned in academy textbooks," he said, gesturing toward the 13 graduates that make up an exhibit that will run until March at the Naval Academy visitor's center. "For midshipmen, the career stories of these men and women is information you can't get here, so I feel like this is closing a gap in education."

On the eve of Black History Month, the Annapolis resident is preparing a series of lectures for middle and high school students from areas with a high population of minorities. Jackson said he would look at how far the academy has come since 1949, when Wesley Brown became the first black midshipman to graduate.

He will also use the presentation to urge minority students to excel in math and science, since many of the admirals featured were not only leaders but also successful engineers.

"These admirals are the academy's Barack Obamas," he said, referring to the Illinois senator and potential 2008 presidential candidate.

"And for many young minority students, there is such a shortage of real role models in math and science, and I wanted people who are out there doing things in the real world today, as opposed to the typical black history presentation about Harriet Tubman or Martin Luther King," he said. "It's great to talk about civil rights heroes, but even greater to tell them the people they see out there are people who today are in charge of surface ships and submarines, people who are real-live achievers."

Among the exhibit subjects are retired Adm. J. Paul Reason, the highest-ranking black academy graduate, as well as Capt. Bruce Grooms, the former academy commandant who is now the deputy director of the Submarine Warfare Division in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, and Michelle Howard, the first female academy grad to become a rear admiral.

Jackson updated the decade-old exhibit when both were promoted last year, and Howard became the 34th African-American to reach flag rank Navy-wide, including the other commissioning programs.

"Jim Jackson is a true historian," said Ron Casey, a classmate of Jackson's who works for the Naval Academy Alumni Association. "He has on his own and with his own efforts maintained the legacy of the African-American military members in the Navy, particularly the flag officers. He has basically given back to the students the history and the honor associated with their service to their country."

A career naval officer who retired at the rank of commander, Jackson was a minority recruiter in the admissions office in the early 1980s and still keeps track of the number of black midshipmen in each incoming class, and their attrition.

Jackson said he is glad to bring the stories of black academy graduates to people's attention whenever he can.

"I guess sometimes, I feel like Santa," he said of all the speaking engagements next month. "I look forward to it like stores look forward to Christmas sales. They might have things for sale all year round, but people won't necessarily be ready to buy it. But now that Black History Month has been institutionalized, it's a way to reach people's hearts that might be closed to this at other times of the year."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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