By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 11, 2008
Wesley A. Brown, a son of the District who became the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy, entered the pantheon of military heroes yesterday as the academy's newest facility was dedicated in his honor.
The Navy's highest brass celebrated Brown as a pioneer of racial justice with attendant pomp at yesterday's opening of the $5 million Wesley A. Brown Field House on the scenic bank of the Severn River in Annapolis. Brown's life story was hailed as an American tale of courage and perseverance, grace and humility.
"He fought a war his whole life for all of us to improve who we are as individuals, who we are both as a Navy and a nation," said Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It was his noble calling and it was his call to service and citizenship that led to lasting change in our Navy and in our nation."
Brown, 81, a retired lieutenant commander, had few words for the crowd of several hundred naval officers, veterans, family and friends, but he said he was humbled by the honor.
"This is certainly the most wonderful moment in my life," Brown said. "This is the most beautiful building I've ever seen. It's majestic."
The 140,000-square-foot facility is the new home of the academy's track and field teams and will serve as the practice space for the football and women's volleyball teams. It features a state-of-the-art hydraulically controlled AstroTurf track.
"This will enhance the Naval Academy's ability to recruit and retain some of the finest students and athletes in the nation," athletic director Chet Gladchuk said.
During his remarks, Brown issued a call to service. "I want you to help us in our efforts to recruit fine young men and women," he said. "We need the volunteers to carry out our foreign policy."
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, the 39th president, who was also a Naval Academy graduate.
Brown graduated in 1949, ranked in the top half of his class, breaking the academy's color barrier. One year earlier, President Harry S. Truman had issued the executive order desegregating the military.
"Here in Annapolis, blacks and whites didn't mix," Mullen said. "It was time for a change. Enter Wesley Brown."
Minorities 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 talk show host Montel Williams.
Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) honored Brown's perseverance and his love of the Navy.
"His personal struggle was a fight for the truths and beliefs that unite us as Americans," O'Malley said.
Brown is a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and served in the Navy's Civil Engineer Corps. He helped build houses in Hawaii, roads in Liberia, waterfront facilities in the Philippines and a seawater conversion plant in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
After retiring from the Navy in 1969, Brown worked for the New York State University Construction Fund, the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, and Howard University.
Capt. Peter W. McGeory, the academy's senior chaplain, paid tribute to Brown.
"He is a true American treasure, and may all of us learn from his courage, his grace, his humor and his humility," McGeory said.
The academy's gospel choir, made up largely of black midshipmen, sang at yesterday's ceremony. Many of the singers said Brown has been an inspiration to them.
"I want to continue to keep building the bridges he built," said Jon Singleton, 26, of Cordele, Ga. "He paved the way for us to follow. His legacy must continue."