Thursday, April 5, 2012

Life Serving Service: African Americans in U. S. Coast Guard

Alex Haley
In my close to 70 years on earth, I'm ashamed to say that I've only read two items about African-Americans in the U. S. Coast Guard.  On May 24, 1939, Alex Haley began his service in the Coast Guard. During his time in the Pacific Theatre Operations, he wrote love letters for his fellow enlisted men to fight his boredom and was able to transfer into the field of journalism in 1949. After twenty years of service, Haley retired from the Caost Guard as Chief Petty Officer.

 He was the first Chief Journalist in the Coast Guard, the rating having been expressly creaated for him in recognition of his literary ability. He received numerous awards and decorations from the Coast Guard. Upon his retirement he penned the "Autobiography of Malcolm X" and the mega novel "Roots".

I recently discovered that the Coast Guard is scheduled to pay tribute to Merle Smith, the first African American to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy (1966).  When the marching unit from the Academy participated in JFK's inaugural parade more than 50 years ago, the lack o f diversity was obvious.  Kennedy told his aides that something should be done about it. Merle Smith, the son of an Army colonel, arrived the next year.
After graduation, he served in Viet Nam, was awarded the Bronze Star, and went on to receive a law degree from Goerge Washington University. Merle Smith returned to the New Londn area, worked as attorney for a submarine builder and taught law at the Coast Guard Academy.

I now know that throughout the history of the U. S. Coast Guard, African Americans have rendered loyal service and outstanding performance.  A classic example is the Berry Family who, since 1897,  had 22 family members serve in Life Saving Service and in the Coast Guard. The first Black officers were appointed in 1943, a full year before the Navy commissioned any. LTJG Jeanine McIntosh, the first black female Coast Guard Aviator, graduated June 2005.

Diversity continues to be an issue at the Academy. In the class of 2015, minorities account for 34% of the class, but only 4 to 5 percent is African American.

The Coast Guard Academy has implemented a number of programs designed to inform the African American community about the Coast Guard and the Academy in an ongoing effort to increase the level of participation.

Related Articles:

Photo History-African American in U. S. Coast Guard

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