When Lt. Cmdr. Wesley A. Brown was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, he was ostracized, his classmates once trashing his room ahead of an inspection. But the Navy embraced him as a trailblazer in Wednesday funeral services, part of which were held in a field house that bears his name.
More than 250 gathered in Annapolis to remember Brown, the sixth black midshipman and the first to graduate. Mourners included top Navy and military officials, the first black female graduate of the academy and the oldest living black graduate of any U.S. military service academy.
"For many, this could be a somber day; I think it's an opportunity to reflect on a great man," said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations. "He showed us that one person can make a difference."
Brown, a Baltimore native, died of cancer May 22 at age 85.
Speakers at the funeral service praised Brown's perseverance at the academy in the late 1940s, years ahead of the civil rights movement. He was aware of the weight of his accomplishment, but rather than rest on it, he used it to inspire future generations of midshipmen, supporters said.
Brown graduated 370th out of nearly 800 graduates in 1949, gaining national media attention, and went on to have a 20-year career in the Navy.
"He paved the way that made it possible for all of us to be here today," said Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden of the U.S. Marines, who called himself "a child of Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown's sacrifice."
Speakers at the memorial service included Bolden and Greenert, as well as Janie Mines, the first black woman to graduate from the academy, and Kerwin Miller, a 1975 academy graduate for whom Brown had been a mentor. Brown's children read Bible passages on humility and finding strength in struggles, while his son Wesley A. Brown Jr. played "Amazing Grace" on a string bass.
In his remarks, Miller recounted a story Brown had told him about the struggles he faced at the academy. Brown once spent hours cleaning his room only for it to be trashed while he was in class. When an officer came to inspect it, he asked Brown if that was how he left the room; through tears, Brown said, "No, sir," Miller said. The officer did not punish Brown, Miller said.
"This officer's response gave him hope to make it through another day," Miller said.
Brown recognized that while his accomplishments were important, he followed in others' footsteps, and others would follow in his, Miller said. In his final months at the academy, Brown wrote an essay called "Eleven Men at West Point," honoring those black men who had graduated from the Military Academy before he graduated from the Naval Academy.
Carol Jackson, one of Brown's daughters, said shepherding those who followed in his footsteps was important to him.
"For those who were struggling to get through, he would always have words of encouragement," Jackson said.
In her remarks, Mines said when she first introduced herself to Brown, he knew exactly who she was and encouraged her in her own trailblazing. In remarks at a reception following the memorial service, Rear Adm. Michelle Howard, the first black woman to command a Navy ship, said she got the same response from Brown.
"He could have done so much just by the historical first of what he accomplished," Howard said afterward. But he went beyond that with others who faced struggles at the academy, "making sure you understood the importance of what you were doing."
The memorial reception was held in Wesley A. Brown Field House, an athletic complex completed and dedicated in Brown's honor in 2008. Brown ran track at the academy —he was a teammate of President Jimmy Carter — and had met with the team in recent years to offer encouraging words.
About 70 family and close friends laid Brown's cremated remains to rest in the academy's columbarium in a ceremony Wednesday morning.