When Sam Gravely left a laborer's job in Richmond to join the Navy in 1942, the 20-year-old black hoped he was escaping the prejudice and segregation he knew in the former capitol of the Confederacy.
Yesterday, after a 38-year career that ended with his retirement as the highest ranking black officer in Navy history, Vice Admiral Gravely told a brass-packed gathering that his hopes had been realized.
Gravely's optimism, however, contrasted with the broadside fired just the day before by the outgoing president of a black naval officers association to which Gravely belongs.
Retired captain Don Griffen charged Wednesday that Virginia recruiters have purposely ignored help in attracting blacks with his National Naval Officers Association offered.
Capt. Barbara Suse, a commander of the Richmond recruiting district which includes most of Virginia, denied Griffen's charges. Suse said that the help offered by Griffen's association would have required more money than her district was budgeted. "My ability to use them (association members) was hampered by lack of funds," said Suse.
Admiral Gravely refused yesterday to be drawn into the controversy.
"I have heard about that, but I don't know enough to talk about it," said Gravely, a former tobacco worker who entered the Navy in the year that service dropped restrictive policies that had limited black to servant roles.
"Until June of 1942, blacks in the Navy were limited to steward ratings," said Gravely whose rise in that service included an impressive number of firsts.
In 1962, Gravely become the first black to command a U.S. warship, the Falgout. The following year he was one of the first two blacks picked to attend the prestigious Naval War College. He is also the only black to earn a three-star admiral's rank.
"I never really ran across any racial hatred," said Gravely, after a retirement ceremony rich in military pomp at the Defense Communications Agency in Arlington."People helped me more than they tried to hurt me."
Gravely did say, however, that the armed services, particularly the Navy, needed to attract more blacks to improve "disappointing" under-representation in the officer ranks.
Blacks make up only 4.7 percent of the officers in all branches of the armed services. The Navy has the lowest proportion in black officers, 2.3 percent of its 62,127 total.
Captain Suse argues that the Richmond district has actually surpassed its goal of 22.4 percent black enlistment thus far this year. On the 1,322 enlisted recruits, 25 percent are black.
But Griffen and others in the association counter that among the 119 officers recruited this year, only three are black.
"When we tried to work with Richmond, there was little if any interest in doing minority recruiting," said Griffen, whose association represents almost a third of the 1,400 black officers in the Navy. "Offer after offer to assist met with almost no response."
Gravely, who plans to retire to Haymarket, Va., to garden and raise racing pigeons, will not let his Navy take all the blame for low minority percentages. While he admits that the current proportion of officers is "considerably lower than the 13 or 14 percent" it should be, Gravely says the [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]
"Blacks come in the Navy for the same reasons any other race of people come in. And they usually go home for the same reasons. Other opportunities . . . sometimes pay more than the federal government is paying its military people."