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The Golden Thirteen

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

In 1944, thirteen Black men helped to desegregate the Navy through their commitment to sheer excellence in blazing a trail for future Black Naval officers.

Seated in front row, left-to-right: Ensign George C. Cooper, USNR; Ensign Graham E. Martin, USNR; Ensign Jesse W. Arbor, USNR; Ensign John W. Reagan, USNR; Ensign Reginald E. Goodwin, USNR.

Standing in back row, left-to-right: Ensign Dennis D. Nelson, USNR; Ensign Phillip G. Barnes, USNR; Ensign Samuel E. Barnes, USNR; Ensign Dalton L. Baugh, USNR; Ensign James E. Hare, USNR; Ensign Frank E. Sublett, USNR; Warrant Boatswain Charles B. Lear, USNR.

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Jesse Walter Arbor

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The Navy was one of the last military branches to integrate African Americans into its service. By the beginning of World War II, the Army already had a black general and had seen its first black Army officer graduate from West Point Academy in 1877. In contrast, the Navy had suspended enlistment of African Americans from 1919 to 1933 and still denied black men entry into general service by the beginning of World War II. The Navy refused to train black men as electricians or machinists, instead limiting them to menial jobs as cleaners and cooks in the Navy’s Messman and Steward branches. There was little chance for upward mobility as Black men were not only barred from serving alongside their white counterparts in any capacity, including rising through the ranks and becoming commissioned officers. Many white Naval officials and public servants even believed that Black men didn’t have the capability, demeanor, and intelligence to become Naval officers.

Thousands of Americans, both Black and White, lobbied for policy changes that would allow black men to serve equally in the U.S. Navy. For years they marched, protested, sent letters, signed petitions, and begged their congressmen and the president to enact change. In June of 1941, their efforts finally paid off when President Franklin Roosevelt signed order 8802, which prevented racial discrimination in any capacity in any government agency. In April 1942, protests and pressure from civil rights leaders and the black newspapers forced the Navy to allow Black men into general service for the first time. In 1944, pressure from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Adlai Stevenson pushed the Navy forward another step. They began an officer training course for 16 African-American men enlisted at Camp Robert Smalls at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago, Illinois. These candidates came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were metalsmiths, teachers, lawyers, and college students. As the first class of African-American, these men were chosen through a rigorous qualification system. They were vetted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) unlike many of their white counterparts.

From the very first night, this group of 16 Black servicemen decided to band together instead of competing against one another. They shared their stories, strengths, and weaknesses, deciding who would be in charge of teaching each area of study based on their area of expertise. They were determined to not only take advantage of the opportunity provided to them, but through their excellence and conduct they wanted to ensure they would not be the last Black Naval officers.

In this effort they faced many challenges, many of which were designed to ensure that they failed. Their barracks were segregated from both the white and other Black enlistees. They constantly faced instances of both subtle and overt racism, some of which was even physical. They were regularly disrespected and refused simple forms of respect that were no issue for white officers like being saluted or being allowed into the officer’s club. The normal 16 week officer training program was even reduced to 10 weeks increasing its rigor. Despite their rigorous training schedule, they still stayed up well past their curfew studying by flashlights with their barracks window covered to ensure that no man would fall behind and every man would excel.

The entire group passed their final tests with high marks scoring higher than any all-white cadet class. Many high ranking white officials refused to believe that they had scored so high, so the men were forced to retake their tests. All sixteen cadets passed again, and they improved their collective class average to a 3.89, which to this day is the highest of any Naval class. To ensure this class of officer candidates would not exceed the average pass rate of the all-white classes, the Navy only commissioned twelve of the candidates, while the thirteenth became a warrant officer. In March of 1944, John Walter Reagan, Jesse Walter Arbor, Dalton Louis Baugh, Sr., Frank Ellis Sublett, Graham Edward Martin, Phillip George Barnes, Reginald E. Goodwin, James Edward Hair, Samuel Edward Barnes, George Clinton Cooper, William S. White, and Dennis Denmark Nelson were commissioned as Ensigns while Charles Byrd Lear was appointed as a Warrant Officer. Even with their amazing accomplishments, the Navy was still segregated. Black men were barred from being assigned to combat ships and commanding white crews so the graduates were given limited scopes of command, which included training Black recruits, overseeing all-Black logistics units, or commanding small vessels that were mostly crewed by Black sailors.

Among these men was Arkansas native Jesse Walter Arbor. Arbor was born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, on December 26, 1914. He graduated from high school in Cotton Plant, then attended the Agricultural, Mechanical and Normal College (AM&N), now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, for three years. Arbor was first assigned to be a company supervisor of a barracks in Hawaii. He later served as a battalion commander in Guam and at Great Lakes. He was honorably discharged in 1946 but remained in the Navy Reserve until 1954.

After his service, Arbor moved back to Chicago and opened a tailor shop. He married his wife, Autry, in 1948. The couple had three children, a son, Jesse Jr. and two daughters, Deborah and Brenda. Arbor retired in 1969 and died on January 11, 2000. In his lifetime, he has received the American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.

Though the thirteen who became known as the “Golden Thirteen” have all died their legacy still remains. Hundreds of black lieutenants, captains, and admirals view them as trailblazers and salute their sacrifices and accomplishments.


The Golden Thirteen

Jesse Arbor

Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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