Vice admiral retires from U.S. Coast Guard as the top-ranking black officer


Vice Adm. Manson Brown receives a framed collection of mementos during his retirement ceremony Wednesday at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington. (Patrick Kelley/U.S. Coast Guard)

With three words, Vice Adm. Manson K. Brown brought to a close his 36-year career in the U.S. Coast Guard and his pioneering role as the highest-ranking black officer in the history of the sea service.

“I stand relieved,” Brown said Wednesday at a change of command ceremony at Coast Guard headquarters in Southeast Washington. Brown, who grew up in the District’s Petworth neighborhood, joined the Coast Guard in 1978 and rose to become a three-star admiral.

Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant, said that Brown had stood on the shoulders of black officers before him and that those who follow owe Brown a debt for his service. Brown played a crucial role in developing the careers of minorities in the Coast Guard, Papp added.

“While we still have a long way to go, I credit Manson Brown for speaking truth to power,” Papp said.

Serving aboard the Glacier, an icebreaker, during his first assignment as a young officer, Brown said he had to confront racism almost immediately. He noticed that one older white subordinate, a popular chief petty officer, seemed agitated by his presence. Brown decided to settle the matter face to face.

“He said there was no way he was going to work for a black man,” Brown said. “My head pounded with anger and frustration.”

But other enlisted leaders on the ship rallied behind Brown. Throughout the rest of his career, Brown was recognized for his inspirational leadership and zeal.

He assumed positions of responsibility in Florida, Hawaii and California, where he oversaw counter-narcotics trafficking missions and other operations spanning 73 million square miles of the Pacific Ocean. He served as the military assistant to two U.S. secretaries of transportation and spent three months in Iraq in 2004, leading the restoration of two major ports.

In recent years, Brown led a Coast Guard effort to improve sexual assault prevention and outreach. A civil engineer by training, he also oversaw recovery operations after Hurricane Sandy wrought $270 million in damage to Coast Guard property, Papp said.

Brown retired as deputy commandant for mission support and commander of Coast Guard headquarters in Washington. Dignitaries at the ceremony, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.); former U.S. transportation secretaries Rodney E. Slater and Norman Y. Mineta; and Merle Smith, the first black U.S. Coast Guard Academy graduate, attended the ceremony at the new Coast Guard headquarters in Anacostia.

Brown said his achievements would not have been possible without the legacy forged by the first black officers in the early years of the Coast Guard.

At first, Brown’s mother was reluctant to let him join the military as war raged in Vietnam, he said at the ceremony. But then London Steverson, the second graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, visited the Brown family home in Ward 4.

“I convinced his mother that her son would not be taken advantage of and would not be a token” black student at the academy, Steverson said. “He was the best of the best. I knew that he could survive.”

After graduating from St. John’s College High School in the District, Brown enrolled in the Coast Guard Academy’s class of 1978, headed to a life patrolling the seas even though he didn’t know how to swim. As a cadet, one of his first assignments was to learn basic strokes.

He later helped create a campus network for minority students at the school. In 1977, he became the first African American to lead the U.S. Coast Guard Academy corps of cadets, the Coast Guard’s student body.

“The vast majority of my career, people embraced me for my passion and ability,” Brown said. When incidents of racism arose, “I decided to confront it at its face.”

Papp, the commandant, described Brown as a friend and mentor. Earlier in their careers, the two officers commuted together to their office in Washington. During one conversation on the way to work, they talked about officer promotions and assignments. Papp said he was surprised when Brown pointed out that bias kept some black officers from advancement.

“All of us human beings, whether we admit it or not, have our own biases,” Papp said. “He opened my eyes to those biases and made me look harder to make sure that we are a balanced and diverse service.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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