Martin Luther King was an unknown college student and Annapolis a segregated town when a slim, black teen-ager in Army khakis strolled through the Maryland Avenue gate of the U.S. Naval Academy on a June morning in 1945.
Wesley A. Brown did not make history that day. Several African-Americans had come before him, only to leave the Yard in a cloud of racist harassment and demerits. He made his mark on another June morning four years later, when he tossed his cap in the air and pinned on his ensign's gold bars, becoming the academy's first black graduate.
Along the way, he was burdened with snubs and harassment and the stinging questions posed by white midshipmen: Why are you doing this? You're only causing trouble. Is it true you're on the payroll of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as a professional tradition breaker?
As an 18-year-old Army private and former colonel of cadets in high school, Mr. Brown had a clear shot at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which graduated its first black cadet in 1877 and had a handful of black alumni by 1945. But he wanted to break the color barrier at Annapolis.
"I felt I could. . . . I thought I would have a greater challenge at the Naval Academy," said Mr. Brown, a 67-year-old retired engineer with a quiet professorial air who lives in an apartment in Northwest Washington.
Mr. Brown, who excelled in math in high school, had the internal strength that came from growing up in a nurturing environment of teachers, extended family and neighbors in the tidy brick rowhouses near Logan Circle in Washington.
"We were taught that we could do just about anything," he recalled from his study packed with Navy memorabilia, photos and letters from presidents and admirals.
"There was never a question in my mind or my family's mind that I could make it."
When the United States entered World War II, blacks enlisted in droves. Prodded by the Roosevelt administration, the Navy reluctantly followed the Army's lead and began producing black officers. By 1945, there were some 60 black officers in the fleet.
On Capitol Hill, a flamboyant congressman from Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell, pushed for service academy appointments for blacks. His secretary was a family friend of the Browns and suggested Wesley Brown, who a year earlier had enlisted in the Army and was taking courses at Howard University.
"Never in the history of the United States had a Negro been allowed to get beyond the first year at Annapolis," Mr. Powell wrote a quarter century later. "I phoned Wesley Brown. . . . He was almost speechless. Finally, he said, 'I'll go if you appoint me.' And I did."
Mr. Brown arrived warned by George Trivers and James Johnson, two blacks who had been there nine years earlier, about the horrible hazing and unjust demerits they suffered. Mr. Trivers had resigned after two months; Mr. Johnson had been forced out by demerits and failed courses in less than a year.
But Mr. Brown entered a different academy. There was a greater cross-section of midshipmen. Some came from Ivy League schools, others from active duty. One had served under a black officer. "I think that made it a lot easier," said Mr. Brown. "If I had been there in 1936, I'm not sure I would have made it either."
Despite the troubles blacks experienced in the past, Mr. Brown remembered the camaraderie of that first Annapolis summer. A few plebes offered to room with him, but he turned them down. "I didn't want to bring anyone into the special problem of mine; I'd be worrying about them," he said.
A chilly fall
When the rest of the Brigade of Midshipmen returned, however, the cordial atmosphere turned chilly. Plebes distanced themselves from him, wary of upperclassmen. They would move away from him when he took a seat in class or chapel. One day, his room was torn apart, the contents of his dresser and bed tossed on the floor.
"Sometimes there was an attitude that you really weren't very serious about being a naval officer," he said.
White midshipmen "leaned on him pretty heavy," recalled one classmate who requested anonymity. "I would hear that people were out to get him. It was just a nasty damn thing."
Midshipman Brown had his share of undeserved demerits and no close friends within the brigade, although many in his company were supportive and some encouraged him.
A fellow track team member from Georgia told him to "hang in there" and drop by his room to talk. A framed 1989 letter from that midshipman hangs on Mr. Brown's study wall. It ends, "I ran with you (you were better). Jimmy Carter."
Years after he graduated, Mr. Brown learned that he had had his own security officer. Then-Secretary of the Navy James V. Forrestal had appointed Lt. John D. Bulkeley, a Medal of Honor winner who was then an assistant to the academy commandant, to ensure the safety of Midshipman Brown. "All I did was to make sure he was treated fairly," retired Vice Admiral Bulkeley said from his Silver Spring home.
Ironically, the midshipman's most serious racial trouble was instigated by Congressman Powell, who made headlines by charging that "forces at work at Annapolis Naval Academy are about to put Wesley Brown out."
Midshipman Brown, who never had complained, was dumbfounded. Mr. Powell's secretary would only say that her boss had his sources. For nearly a month, Midshipman Brown was met with icy glares and silence from the brigade.
Only when Mr. Powell published his autobiography in 1971 did the truth emerge: "I had to lie in order to make sure that Wesley Brown was not touched by anyone," the congressman wrote.
"I almost threw up," said Mr. Brown.
Mostly, he remembers an air of indifference from other midshipmen. He often stayed in his room, studying or writing letters. When classmates went to Carvel Hall or other Annapolis spots not open to blacks, he walked to the Clay Street area for movies at the Star Theater, a cordial atmosphere at the Alsop Restaurant and pingpong at the YMCA.
"The life of Wesley Brown, of course, had to be a lonely one," said Philip L. Brown, author of books on segregated Annapolis who remembers the academy's black cafeteria workers saying Midshipman Brown was not treated well.
'Something to prove'
The academy's regimented and rigorous life often leads midshipmen to resign and head for civilian colleges. But Mr. Brown said he "had an extra something to stay for, an extra something to prove."
"I didn't want to let people down," he said.
Each year got easier, he said. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman desegregated the military and two more blacks entered the academy. Mr. Brown counseled them to understand that many times hardships come from being a plebe and not because of racial prejudice.
Midshipman Brown graduated in 1949 in the middle of his class, ranked 370 out of about 790 graduates. Reporters and film crews thronged to Annapolis to record the historic event that he calls "probably the most exciting day of my life."
He held a news conference and wrote a first-person report for the Saturday Evening Post: "The First Negro Graduate of Annapolis Tells His Story." But he left out the snubs, the indifference and the poor treatment of earlier black midshipmen, writing only that former Midshipman Trivers "talked to me about the customs so important in a military organization."
"I wanted it to be a positive article," he explained. "I'm starting my career."
That career as an engineering officer lasted 20 years and took him from the Boston Navy Yard to Subic Bay in the Philippines and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
He retired a lieutenant commander in 1969 and continued
construction work, first for the State University of New York on Long Island and later at Howard University in Washington.
'I remember the good stuff'
Of his academy experience, he has a growing fondness. "The more years that go by I remember the good stuff and not any bad stuff at all," he said.
And he has developed something that eluded him during those years: a warm relationship with his classmates. Once a month he joins some of them at a Virginia restaurant and they huddle together at Army-Navy games and reunions.
"He was just a nice guy and a smart guy," said Dick Whiteside of Annapolis, who recalls sitting in math classes with Mr. Brown. "I just thought he was a pretty steady guy to begin with."
Last fall, Mr. Brown joined classmates for their 45th reunion. The gray veterans all watched Brigade Cmdr. Reuben Brigety, 21, of Jacksonville, Fla., a black midshipman with sword in hand, lead the brigade.
Afterward, Mr. Brown approached Midshipman Brigety, who saw there were tears streaming down Mr. Brown's face. "He said, 'You know, Reuben, just watching you coming across the field just let me know how far we've come.' "