In some editions, a headline with a June 4 Metro article on U.S. Naval Academy graduate Wesley A. Brown misidentified the year that he graduated from the academy. Brown was in the Class of 1949. (Published 6/6/2005)
On June 30, 1945, Wesley A. Brown stood amid a group of white faces clad in crisp, white uniforms inside the U.S. Naval Academy's Memorial Hall and took the oath of induction.
He was the sixth African American admitted to the academy. There were three during Reconstruction and two in the 1930s -- all had been forced out or resigned after relentless campaigns of hazing and demerits, and sometimes physical violence. Brown survived, graduating in 1949 to break the academy's color barrier. He retired 20 years later as a lieutenant commander in the Navy's Civil Engineering Corps.
For years, Brown played down the treatment he received at the hands of fellow midshipmen. But his punishing journey, along with that of the five other black men who tried unsuccessfully to integrate the academy, is detailed in a new book by an official Navy historian.
Robert J. Schneller Jr.'s "Breaking the Color Barrier: The U.S. Naval Academy's First Black Midshipmen and the Struggle for Racial Equality," describes for the first time the difficulties Brown endured and the concerted effort by a "tight knot" of southern upperclassmen to oust him using racial epithets, ostracism and demerits.
Members of the Class of 1949 gathered over lunch yesterday at the academy to honor Brown's accomplishment for the first time and to hear from Schneller.
Brown, 78, said he had been unaware of some of the most disturbing actions against him, including the demerit campaign, until Schneller began his research.
"I suspected it, but I had no way of knowing," he said.
Brown grew up on Q Street NW near Logan Circle. The neighborhood was then an intellectual and social center for blacks in segregated Washington, and Brown devoured books on black history. He became fascinated with the stories of black pioneers in the military.
At Dunbar High School, he joined the cadet corps. He aspired to attend West Point, which graduated its first black cadet in 1877. Not old enough to apply when he graduated from high school in June 1944, he enrolled at Howard University -- becoming the first in his family to attend college -- and enlisted in the Army Reserve.
As a freshman, he still intended to seek an appointment at West Point when Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York offered him a chance to attend the Naval Academy.
Recalling the stories he had read of the first black cadets to graduate from West Point, the idea of being the first at the Naval Academy appealed to him.
It was the "greater challenge," he told his former classmates yesterday.
Brown soon found himself the object of racial epithets. Many of his classmates refused to speak to him. Demerits from a small group of upperclassmen piled up, leading to extra marching duty as punishment that took away from study time. The demerits often were given for petty and sometimes fabricated infractions that were difficult to disprove.
Howie Weiss, from the Class of 1947, recalled in the book that about two dozen upperclassmen, mostly from the South, "were just plain out to get him.
"And the way they were going to get him was through demerits."
By the end of his first semester, Brown had 103 demerits, enough to make Weiss worry that Brown could be expelled. Weiss and a handful of other upperclassmen, including a young Jimmy Carter, took Brown under their wing.
The ill treatment eased in his second semester -- only five demerits -- and into his second year.
After graduating, he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post that in his first month a "clique of upperclassmen tried to work me over by reporting me for minor offenses."
The demerits came in "bucketfuls," he wrote. But instead of blaming racism, Brown attributed most of the treatment to his behavior. "When I got into hot water, I kept reminding myself, Brown, you're in trouble because you're a dumb cluck and have made a mistake. You're getting the same treatment as your classmates."
As recently as 1989, he told a Washington Post reporter that he was treated much the same as everyone else.
Schneller said yesterday that Brown probably played down his treatment out of modesty and partly because it was less severe than what the black pioneers throughout history had endured. Many of his former classmates said they were surprised to hear of Brown's treatment.
"It's hard enough for anyone to make it through the academy without these other things going on," said retired Cmdr. Hal Tipton, current president of the Class of 1949.
Even now, Brown still doesn't complain, said his wife of 41 years, Crystal.
"We were brought up in segregated Washington and segregated schools, so we didn't expect a whole lot of friendly treatment," Crystal Brown said. "You learned to steel yourself."
And besides, added her husband, the book has a happy ending.