Final Salute to a Navy Pioneer

Alma Gravely said that her husband faced difficulties as a black admiral but that he had a lifelong affection for the Navy. The Samuel L. Gravely Jr. Elementary School in Haymarket, named in his honor, officially opens Thursday.
Alma Gravely said that her husband faced difficulties as a black admiral but that he had a lifelong affection for the Navy. The Samuel L. Gravely Jr. Elementary School in Haymarket, named in his honor, officially opens Thursday. (By Dominic Bracco Ii -- The Washington Post)
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By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Alma Gravely, 86, of Haymarket was a bit incredulous when someone told her a while ago that Prince William County officials were considering naming an elementary school after her late husband, Samuel Jr., a Navy man.

"Someone in Gainesville who was active in the community called me and said, 'What would you think about Prince William naming a school after Sam?' " Gravely recalled with a chuckle. "And I said, 'Well, I think that's a great honor, but there must be other people who lived here longer, or people who were born and reared here, instead of my husband.' And she said, 'Yes, but they were not Navy admirals.' "

But her husband was not just an admiral. He was the nation's first African American to become a vice admiral, one of the Navy's highest-ranking positions.

On Thursday, after months of anticipation, planning with Navy officials and a ceremonial groundbreaking, the Prince William school system will cut the ribbon to open the Samuel L. Gravely Jr. Elementary School on Waverly Farm Drive in Haymarket.

The school has a capacity of more than 800 students and is intended to relieve some of the crowding that has emerged in the Gainesville area in the county's western section.

The ribbon-cutting will feature the president's Navy honor guard, which will present colors, as well as speeches by Prince William Superintendent Steven L. Walts, School Board Chairman Milton C. Johns (At Large) and Navy Rear Adm. Julius Caesar. It will also include the whistling of a boatswain's pipe.

Caesar explained his reasons for attending the ceremony via e-mail: "I'm coming to the ribbon-cutting out of great respect for Vice Admiral Gravely, and his widow, Mrs. Alma Gravely. The Admiral was a role model whom I admired from afar. I met him on a few occasions after he retired. He was a striking figure who commanded respect with his towering character and intellect yet he was very humble. He opened the door and inspired a generation of African-American Flag officers. Many are on active duty today."

Philip Molter, a Navy spokesman, said the event will be meaningful. "I don't think Navy people go through that many school ribbon-cuttings," he said. "This is a very significant event from the Navy standpoint."

The ceremony will also include a short speech by Alma Gravely. In an interview, she described the difficulties that her husband faced helping to command ships and other seamen. She also recalled how his overriding affection for the Navy symbolized his life. He died in 2004 at the age of 82.

"There were people who didn't want to be on a ship with him. There weren't many blacks in the Navy," Gravely said. "One time, he was taken to jail in Key West, Florida, for impersonating an officer. He was an officer, and he was in an officer's uniform."

Born in 1922, Samuel Jr. enlisted in the Navy Reserve in 1942 after two years of college. In 1944, after more training at the University of California at Los Angeles and Columbia University in New York, he completed midshipman training and became the first African American to be commissioned as an officer from the Navy Reserve Officers' Training Corps, according to the Navy.

The couple married in 1946. They spent a lifetime traveling from duty to duty, from California to Rhode Island and later Hawaii. They had met through a mutual friend in college in the 1940s.


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