Vice Adm. Samuel Lee Gravely, Jr. racked up a long list of “firsts” in surface warfare before becoming the first African-American to reach flag rank in the U. S. Navy. In an interview at his Virginia home on his 80th birthday, June 4, 2002, Gravely was modest and matter-of-fact about how he became an inspiration to today’s sailors.
Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II, Gravely joined the segregated Naval Reserve and became a fireman apprentice.
“I liked regimentation,” said Gravely. “I took naturally to marching and saluting. I didn’t like sleeping in hammocks, but that was part of the deal. At first, I wasn’t thinking of being an officer.”
A native of Richmond with two years at Virginia Union University, he wanted to have a meaningful role in the war but remained hesitant when an opportunity for a commission arose.
The Navy had begun its V-12 program to produce officers via fast-track training at the nation’s universities. “It wasn’t mentioned when we stood at quarters, nor was it advertised in black publications, but I had heard of it,” said Gravely.
After boot camp, “I was in San Diego working in the pool hall. A lieutenant said to me, ‘Why aren’t you taking the V-12 test?’ I looked at him and said, ‘If you recall, there are no black officers in the Navy, so why should I bother?’ His answer was, ‘Get your ass down there and take that test.'”
In 1943, Gravely qualified for the V-12 program. His training took him to the University of California at Los Angeles and to midshipman school at Columbia University in New York. In December 1944, Gravely became the first African-American to receive a commission from a Naval Reserve Officer Training Course.
As an ensign, Gravely served aboard the USS PC-1264, a subchaser with a mostly black crew. He left active duty in April 1946, but remained in the Naval Reserve. After marrying a fellow student, he received a bachelor’s degree from Virginia Union University in 1948.
As a lieutenant (j.g.), Gravely returned to active duty in 1949. He had sea and shore duty during the next decade, including Korean War service, and transferred to the regular Navy in 1955. His first seagoing command was the destroyer USS Falgout (DER 324) in 1962. He was also skipper of USS Theodore E. Chandler (DD 717).
When he took the bridge of USS Taussig (DD 746) in 1965, he became the first African-American to command a U.S. warship in combat since a brief incident during the Civil War. Taussig pulled battle duty in the Gulf of Tonkin in March 1965 with Gravely on the bridge.
In July 1971, while serving as commander of USS Jouett (DLG-29), Capt. Gravely was promoted to rear admiral, the first African-American to achieve flag rank in the Navy. In September 1976, he was assigned to Pearl Harbor to command the Third Fleet. During 1978-80, he was Director of the Defense Communications Agency. He retired from the Navy at three-star rank on Aug. 1, 1980.
“Back at the beginning,” Gravely said, “I studied the services and decided the Navy was the best. I didn’t find Navy life too bad. I was born in a segregated community. Since we were in a general war fighting for the freedom of all people, I thought, ‘A little of this [freedom] ought to come in my direction.’ But I was also accustomed to blacks being treated differently.” The U.S. military was officially desegregated under an edict from President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1948, but Gravely said the Navy took a long time to “get serious about it.”
Ultimately, he wore three stars on his shoulder – the first African-American to be a vice admiral. By the time he commanded the Taussig during the Vietnam era, some 15 years after Truman’s order, Gravely no longer felt race was an issue. “But I knew I had to excel or nobody would ever notice me.” From 1971 to 1973 Gravely was dual-hatted as director of naval communications on the staff of the chief of naval operations and as commander of the Naval Telecommunications Command. He served as Director of the Defense Communications Agency in Washington, overseeing the communications network linking Washington with American and allied bases worldwide, until his retirement in August 1980.
Gravely and his wife Alma, were the parents of two sons and a daughter. After retirement, they lived in a rural, hilltop setting in Haymarket, Va. – the site of our interview – where Gravely raised pigeons and spent time gardening and canning. He became one of the few experts on racing pigeons in the United States. Gravely stayed active in veterans’ and industry organizations.
One of the Navy’s top surface warfare officers, a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam would do it over if he could. “I served with a lot of great people. At first, I didn’t know how they thought of me, but after awhile we admired each other.”
After a stroke, Gravely died at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., on Oct. 22, 2004. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Gravely (DDG 107) is named for him, as is the Gravely Group at the Naval War College.