Samuel Lee Gravely Jr., 82, a retired Navy vice admiral who made history by becoming the first African American to command a naval fleet, died Oct. 22 at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda after a stroke. He lived in Haymarket.
Adm. Gravely, the first black admiral, achieved a number of other accomplishments in a storied, 38-year naval career that began as a fireman apprentice in the Naval Reserve in 1942.
In the 1960s, he became the first African American to command a Navy warship when he was executive officer and acting commanding officer of the destroyer Theodore E. Chandler. In the Vietnam War, he was placed in command of the destroyer USS Taussig and later the guided missile frigate USS Jouett, making him the first African American to command a major naval warship.
He also commanded a cruiser destroyer group, the Eleventh Naval District and Third Fleet.
"His leadership inspired a generation of Americans to make the most of every opportunity," said Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations.
A quiet, unassuming man who was known more as a listener than a talker, Adm. Gravely was promoted to rear admiral in 1971 during a ceremony aboard the Jouett in San Diego.
"His view was that he liked the Navy," said his wife, Alma Gravely of Haymarket. "He was happy just doing his job and doing it well. And as he was doing it, he strived to climb the ranks."
In 1976, Adm. Gravely was placed in command of the Third Fleet in the Pacific after a reorganization of Navy forces. After two years, he was named director of the Defense Communications Agency in Washington, a post he held until his retirement from active military duty in 1980.
In retirement, he worked as a consultant and tended to a lifelong hobby of raising pigeons.
Adm. Gravely, a Richmond native, joined the Naval Reserve after his second year at Virginia Union University. He entered the Navy's college V-12 program in 1943. After attending Midship School at the University of California Los Angeles and Columbia University, he received an officer's commission the next year.
His first assignment as an ensign took him to a naval training station in Illinois, where he was assistant battalion commander for new recruits. Near the end of the war, he was assigned to a submarine-chasing patrol craft that had a predominantly African American crew.
He left active duty after the war and remained in the Naval Reserve. He completed a bachelor's degree at Virginia Union University before he was recalled to active duty during the Korean War.
His awards included the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and the Meritorious Service Medal.
While the military services were under a presidential order to desegregate, Adm. Gravely was assigned as a Navy recruiter in Washington.
In addition to his wife of 58 years, survivors include two children, Tracey E. Gravely of Fredericksburg and David E. Gravely of Manassas Park; and two brothers.