Samuel Lee Gravely Jr. was a Navy officer, who paved the way for African Americans in the military. He became the first African American Navy Vice Admiral, the first African American to command a Navy warship, the first African American to command a warship during combat, the first African American to command a Navy Fleet, and the first African American to obtain Flag Rank in the military.
According to his biography, Gravely was said to have demanded very high standards from his crew. In a 1977 address to navy officers, as quoted in Ebony, he stated: “We must improve our individual understanding of our fundamental warfare skills. We must improve the performance and productivity of our people. And we must continue to stress the very rudiments of our profession—smartness, appearance, seamanship, and most importantly, pride. Pride in ourselves! Pride in our ships! And pride in our Navy!”
Born in Richmond, Virginia on June 4, 1922, Gravely attended Virginia Union University for three years, where he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate fraternity established for African Americans in 1906.
He did not complete his education and enlisted in the Naval Reserve in 1942 where he trained as a fireman apprentice. When he successfully completed a Midshipman education known as the V-12 Program, in December of 1944 Gravely was commissioned an Ensign, becoming the first African American commissioned as an officer from the Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC).
As his first assignment, Officer Gravely was stationed at Camp Robert Smalls, in Illinois, where he served as the Assistant Battalion Commander for new recruits. Thereafter, he served aboard the USS PC-1264, a segregated submarine chaser.
He was released from active duty in April 1946, but remained in the Naval Reserve. He returned to Richmond and resumed his studies at Virginia Union University. In 1948, he completed his undergraduate education, earning a Baccalaureate degree in History.
Officer Gravely was recalled to active duty and was assigned as a recruiter in 1949.
He was stationed in Washington, D.C. and he recruited among the local African American community. Officer Gravely was later stationed aboard the Battleship Iowa and then the Cruiser Toledo where he served as a communications officer during the Korean War. The ship’s communications officer said in an Ebony magazine: “I don’t care if he’s black, white, or green, all I want is a radio officer!”.
According to Black Past, in 1955 Gravely was transferred from the Naval Reserve to the regular Navy. In 1962, he was promoted to Commander of the United States Ship USS Falgout (DER-324), which patrolled the Pacific Barrier between the Aleutian and Midway Islands.
By May of 1970 Gravely had become Commander of the USS Jouett (DLG-29), which remained active throughout the Vietnam War. While serving as Commander aboard the USS Jouett, in July of 1971 Captain Gravely was again elevated to the position of Rear Admiral.
Again in September 1976, Vice Admiral Gravely was promoted by President Richard Nixon to assume control over the entire Third Fleet overseeing all operations on 100 Navy ships, and was in command of 60,000 sailors and marines stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Vice Admiral Gravely served as Director of the Defense Communications Agency for his final tour of duty from 1978, up until his retirement in 1980. As Director he oversaw the communications network linking Washington, D.C. with allied bases throughout the world.
After retirement, he worked as a consultant. Vice Admiral Gravely served 38 years in the Navy and his decorations include the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Navy Commendation Medal, and Meritorious Service Medal. The Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyer DDG-107 has been named in his honour.
Vice Admiral Gravely died on October 22, 2004, at the National Naval Center in Bethesda, Maryland due to complications from a stroke. “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.”
The obituary on the U.S. Department of Defense Web site quoted Gravely’s formula for success: “My formula is simply education plus motivation plus perseverance.”
His numerous Award include being named Distinguished Virginian by Governor Holton, 1972; Communications Award from the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association of Media Women, 1972; Major Richard R. Wright Award of Excellence, Savanna State College, 1974; Prince Hall Founding Fathers Military Commanders Award, Scottish Rite Prince Hall Masonic Bodies of Maryland, 1975; San Diego Press Club Military Headliner of the Year, 1975. Military awards: Legion of Merit with Gold Star, Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, Joint Services Commendation Medal, Navy Commendation Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Naval Reserve Medal for 10 years of service in the U.S. Naval Reserve, American Campaign Medal, Korean Presidential Unit Citation, National Defense Medal with one bronze star, China Service Medal, Korean Service Medal with two bronze stars, United Nations Service Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with six bronze stars, and the Antarctic Service Medal.