Wesley Brown, Pioneer as Black Naval Graduate, Dies at 85

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  1. Vista123

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    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/25/u...ies-at-85.html?_r=1&smid=tw-nytimes&seid=auto



    Wesley A. Brown, a retired Navy lieutenant commander who endured intense racial hazing to become the first black graduate of the United States Naval Academy, died Tuesday in Silver Spring, Md. He was 85.

    United States Naval Academy
    Wesley A. Brown in 1949.

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    The cause was cancer, said his wife, Crystal.

    Mr. Brown, who entered the academy in 1945 and graduated in 1949, was the sixth black man admitted in the 100-year history of the Annapolis military college but the first to withstand the kind of hazing that had forced the others to leave within a year, according to Navy historians.

    White cadets refused to sit next to Mr. Brown, racial epithets were whispered behind his back, and fellow plebes barred him from joining the choir — all of it mixed with and hidden behind a torrent of regular hazing that underclassmen were expected to bear. He told interviewers that not a day passed when he did not consider quitting.

    But unlike his predecessors, he said, Mr. Brown had the support of a handful of fellow cadets, who were friendly to him despite receiving threats from hostile classmates, and from the academy commandant, who intervened to protect him from excessive harassment.

    “If not for that, I’m not sure I would have made it,” Mr. Brown told an interviewer.

    One cadet who visited his dorm room to talk and encouraged him to “hang in there,” Mr. Brown said, was Jimmy Carter, the future president, who was then an upperclassman and fellow member of the academy’s cross-country team.

    In a speech last year at a Naval Academy event, Mr. Carter recalled Cadet Brown as part of “my first personal experience with total integration.”

    “A few members of my senior class attempted to find ways to give him demerits so that he would be discharged,” Mr. Carter said, “but Brown’s good performance prevailed.”

    Blacks had served in the American armed forces since the Revolution. But for the most part they remained in segregated units until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman ordered the integration of the services. Attempts to integrate the academies, beginning after the Civil War, had met intense resistance. Only a half-dozen blacks had graduated from West Point, for instance, by the time Mr. Brown decided to seek a commission as the first black graduate of the naval academy.

    Mr. Brown’s career as a naval cadet was widely covered in both black newspapers and mainstream ones. When he graduated, he told The New York Times that he had “really enjoyed” his four years as a midshipman — except for the publicity, which he called “a bad angle.”

    “I feel it is unfortunate the American people have not matured enough to accept an individual on the basis of his ability and not regard a person as an oddity because of his color,” he said. “My class standing shows that around here, I am an average Joe.” He was ranked 370th in a class of 790.

    He first publicly discussed his hazing with the Navy historian Robert J. Schneller Jr., who interviewed him for his 2005 book, “Breaking the Color Barrier: The U.S. Naval Academy’s First Black Midshipmen and the Struggle for Racial Equality.” In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Schneller expanded on Mr. Brown’s version of why he made it through four years when others had not.

    “He made it because he was a gentle guy, and a hard worker, who came from a community where they taught their children not to believe the bull white people gave them about the black man’s ‘limited abilities’ — who taught them that they could do what they wanted,” Mr. Schneller said.

    Wesley Anthony Brown was born in Washington on April 3, 1927, the only child of William and Rosetta Brown. His father drove a truck for a produce market, and his mother worked in a laundry. During most of Mr. Brown’s childhood the family shared a large house near Logan Circle, owned by his grandmother Katie Shepherd, with many other relatives.

    Mr. Brown became active in the neighborhood church, a nexus for community activists. He recommended Mr. Brown to the Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who wanted to appoint a black candidate for the naval academy.

    As a Navy civil engineer, Mr. Brown served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and worked on Navy construction projects around the world before retiring in 1969. He was a facilities manager and planner at Howard University in Washington until 1988.

    In 2008, the Naval Academy dedicated a new facility for athletic programs, the Wesley Brown Field House. The $25 million structure was built with many innovative features, academy officials said, including a skinlike shell made from blastproof glass.

    Besides his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Wiletta Scott and Carol Jackson; two sons, Wesley Jr., and Gary; and seven grandchildren.

    Throughout his life Mr. Brown loyally attended class reunions. In a 2006 interview with The Baltimore Sun, he described former classmates who sometimes approached him. “They’ll say, ‘I was very mean and ugly to you when you were a midshipman,’ ” he said. “Lots of times I’ll say, ‘I don’t remember you and don’t remember you doing anything like that, so forget it.’ ”

    He added: “You remember the good stuff. A lot of the bad stuff — I can’t relate to it.”
     

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