Academy honors a pioneer

Navy names athletic facility for first black graduate

May 06, 2008|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,Sun Reporter

When retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown learned that the U.S. Naval Academy planned to name a new, $45 million sports complex after him, he felt somewhat guilty.

In an era when sports facilities are often named after corporate sponsors or major donors, Brown was neither. But he will always have the distinction of being the first African-American to graduate from the military college in Annapolis, having overcome taunts and even a campaign to get him kicked out.

On Saturday, the Wesley Brown Field House, just completed on the banks of the Severn River, will be dedicated in his honor.

"I believe this is symbolic," said Brown, 81, a 1949 academy graduate who lives with his wife in Washington. "Some of the Navy policies, procedures in the past, have not been the kind that African-Americans were in favor of. And I think this indicates their dedication to diversity in general."

The naming of the facility comes at a time when the Naval Academy is trying to increase minority enrollment. Blacks make up about 4.4 percent of the estimated 4,000 midshipmen. The number of African-Americans applying to the academy has dropped by nearly 20 percent since 2001, academy leaders reported last year, despite aggressive recruiting efforts by the Navy in recent years.

By the time Brown entered the academy in 1945, five black midshipmen had failed to finish their first year there.

Brown's experience at the academy was rough at times. Some white midshipmen tried to "skin him out on demerits," citing him for poor conduct, a messy room or unkempt uniform, according to Breaking the Color Barrier, a book by naval historian Robert Schneller Jr. about the struggles of Brown and other midshipmen to integrate the academy.

Brown has said in previous interviews that he did not recall many of the bad experiences at the academy and prefers to talk about the friends he had there.

Brown graduated one year after President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military by executive order.

As of two years ago, 1,585 African-Americans had graduated from the academy. More recent figures numbers were not available yesterday, an academy spokeswoman said.

Retired Navy Cmdr. Jim Jackson, an academy graduate who is black, said the significance of Brown's role as the academy's first African-American graduate goes beyond military terms. He pointed out that many universities at the time had not integrated.

"It showed educators and colleges that it's time for the doors to be open because African-Americans did have the discipline to work in a rigorous academy setting," Jackson said.

Brown, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Washington, entered the Navy's civil engineer corps after graduation. He retired from the Navy in 1969.

Brown said he was taken aback several years ago when someone from the academy called to say officials planned to name an athletic complex after him. Brown said he initially thought the caller was a prankster or a telemarketer.

Two months later, he suffered a heart attack at his home, and doctors told his wife that he would likely die before morning. Their four children flew in from other parts of the country to be at his side.

Brown said he is simply thankful to be alive for Saturday's ceremony.

He has spent recent weeks finalizing the guest list, which has grown to 70 family members and more than 300 friends.

The 140,000-square-foot sports complex sits on the northeast corner of the college and will house facilities for physical education and sports teams.

Brown will make his own donation to the building: a portrait by renowned artist Simmie Knox of Brown as a midshipman upon graduation.

"There's no greater honor, obviously, for an alumni to have a building named for him, one that he hasn't donated the money for," Brown said with a laugh.

josh.mitchell@baltsun.com

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