Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown (pictured), the first Black to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy, passed away on Tuesday at age 85, reports the Associated Press.
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Brown was born in Baltimore in 1927, graduated from Dunbar High School in the District, and became the first in his family to attend college at Howard University. He entered the Naval Academy in 1945, where he was an accomplished athlete running cross-country with Jimmy Carter who was also a Naval Academy graduate. Brown graduated from the Academy in 1949, ranking in the top half of his class. Although he was in fact the sixth Black person to be admitted, he was the first to actually graduate.
Ironically, it was only a year earlier that president Harry S. Truman made the executive decision to desegregate the military.
During the 20th century, the U.S. Naval Academy evolved from a racist institution to one that ranked equal opportunity, but the journey to arrive at that point was a rocky one. Civil rights advocates’ demands for equal opportunity shaped the Naval Academy’s evolution.
The time Brown spent at the Academy was trying for him but he held his ground and refused to cave. Brown endured isolation and harassment, but he was not bitter. He was featured in the book, “Breaking the Color Barrier: The U.S. Naval Academy’s First Black Midshipmen and the Struggle for Racial Equality” by Robert J. Schneller Jr. According to the Naval historian, the racial attitudes of many of the naval officers and midshipmen at the Academy reflected the kinds of attitudes that had given rise to slavery and the Ku Klux Klan.
According to the Associated Press, Brown said in a 2005 interview with the Baltimore Sun that upperclassmen would give Brown excessive demerits for allegedly not maintaining his uniform properly and some classmates would not sit next to him in the cafeteria. Brown spent his four years at the Academy without a roommate by choice, he recalled in the interview. He said he didn’t want to feel responsible for unwilling or friendly White midshipmen.
He told the Baltimore Sun that he learned to not be frustrated when faced with a situation that couldn’t be changed.
“When I came to the Academy, I learned that there were all kinds of prejudices — against Jews, Catholics, even the Irish — and I looked around and thought that these prejudices were instilled in them by their families and they could not be blamed for feeling the way they did,” he said during the interview.
Brown was a veteran of World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He had a 20-year career with the Navy. He helped build houses in Hawaii, roads in Liberia, waterfront facilities in the Philippines, and a seawater conversion plant in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He retired from civilian employment at Howard University in 1988.
In 2008, the Naval Academy constructed the Wesley Brown Field House to accommodate physical education classes as well as the academy’s athletic programs.
Minorities now make up 22 percent of the brigade of midshipmen today. More than 1,700 African Americans have graduated from the Academy, including admirals, astronauts, and such celebrities as basketball player David Robinson and former talk show host-turned-actor Montel Williams.