Lt. Cmdr. Wesley A. Brown, broke color barrier at Naval Academy

Ret. Lt. Cmdr. Wesley A. Brown was the first African-American graduate of the Naval Academy.
(André F. Chung 2008, Baltimore Sun)

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Wesley A. Brown, who broke the color barrier at the Naval Academy and was its first African-American graduate in 1949, died Tuesday of cancer at Springhouse of Silver Spring Assisted Living.

He was 85.


"It's important for America to remember Wesley A. Brown. He was a pioneer like Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson," said Navy historian Robert J. Schneller Jr., who wrote about Commander Brown's years at the Naval Academy in his book "Breaking the Color Barrier: The U.S. Naval Academy's First Black Midshipmen and the Struggle for Racial Equality."

"The Naval Academy was damned lucky to have such a fine gentleman that Wesley Brown was to be their first African-American graduate," said Mr. Schneller. "He was a man who had deep respect for his family, military service, education and his community."


Commander Brown, whose father drove a grocery delivery truck and mother worked as a presser for a dry cleaner, was born in Baltimore and was a year old when his family moved to Washington.

"His father worked for an Italian grocery store. It was during the Depression. At the end of the day, anything left on the truck, he was able to take home," said one of Commander Brown's daughters, Willetta West of Philadelphia. She said whatever food the family didn't need, they gave to neighbors.

Commander Brown was a graduate of Shaw Junior High School and Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, where as a youth he had demonstrated proficiency in math and a deep interest in the Navy.

During high school, had a job the afternoons and evenings working as a junior clerk in the Navy Department.


"I've been thinking about the Navy since I was about 8 or 10 — since the time I pinned the photograph of the old USS Lexington on my bedroom wall. ... I arranged my high school studies to get as much math and science as possible, " Commander Brown wrote in a Saturday Evening Post article in 1949.

"The urge to go to Annapolis became stronger. Not only did I like the officers I met on my job, but I learned that the Navy primarily is an engineering institution, and engineering has always been my dish," he wrote.

"Dunbar was the premier college prep school for African-Americans at the time, and people came from all over so their children could go there," said Mr. Schneller. "It was a school that was steeped in the history of African-Americans and military service. It was not influenced by what white men said about them."

After graduating from Dunbar, Commander Brown enrolled at Howard University and enlisted in the Army Reserve while majoring in electrical engineering.

New York Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. got Commander Brown appointed to the Naval Academy in 1945.

"He was trying to get the color barrier broken at the Naval Academy," said Mr. Schneller. "Wes had been accepted at West Point but chose Annapolis because it is the greater challenge."

A Georgian, Henry O. Flipper, was the first African-American to graduate from West Point in 1877. Commander Brown was the sixth black man to attend the Naval Academy. The first was a South Carolinian, James Henry Conyers, who entered in 1872 and resigned a year later.

In a 1989 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Commander Brown described his first year at Annapolis as "tough."

When he sat down in the cafeteria, other midshipmen got up and walked away. He roomed alone for four years.

He was given excessive demerits and had to endure taunts by upperclassmen from the South who wanted to see him fail, while others spread false rumors that he was on the payroll of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"When I came to the academy, I learned that there were all kinds of prejudices — against Jews, Catholics, even the Irish -— and I looked around and thought that these prejudices were instilled in them by their families, and they could not be blamed for feeling the way they did," Commander Brown said in a 2005 interview with The Sun.

Life in Annapolis away from the academy was not much better, with many establishments unfriendly to blacks. Commander Brown had to go to the Clay Street neighborhood to take in a movie at the Star Theater, Alsop's Restaurant for a meal or the YMCA for a game of pingpong.

And still he prevailed.

"I didn't mind it so much. I had a goal. I liked the Navy. I liked the Naval Academy," Commander Brown recalled in the 1989 interview. "I thought all the teachers and professors I had were certainly very fair … and for the most part, I got along with my classmates."

One upperclassman who did not shun him was fellow track team member Jimmy Carter — Class of 1947 — and the future president encouraged him to "hang in there," dropping by and to visit him in his dorm room.

A token of their relationship was a 1989 letter from the former president to Commander Brown, which he framed and hung on his study wall. It ended with the words: "I ran with you (you were better). Jimmy Carter."

"It's too bad the American people haven't matured enough to accept a person on the basis of his ability and not regard him as an oddity because he's colored. I'm just an average Joe. There's no reason at all I should be giving a press conference," Commander Brown, who graduated 370th out of nearly 800 graduates, said in a Washington Post interview at the time.

His first assignment was at the Boston Naval Shipyard, which was followed by studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering.

As a member of the Navy Civil Engineer Corps, where he rose to lieutenant commander and served for 20 years, Commander Brown traveled the world, building houses in Hawaii, roads in Liberia, wharves in the Philippines, a nuclear power plant in Antarctica and a desalinization plant at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

After retiring from the Navy in 1969, he continued in construction work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and then in the university planning office at Howard University, from which he retired in 1988.

In 2008, the $52 million, 140,000-square-foot Wesley Brown Field House facing the Severn River was named in his honor.

"It is the only object or building on the grounds of the nation's service academies named for an African-American," said Mr. Schneller.

"Midshipmen always wanted to have their picture taken with Wes. They looked up to him as living history, which he was," he said. "And he was not bitter."

The longtime resident of the Rittenhouse Apartments in Washington enjoyed reading history — particularly naval history — and playing tennis.

Funeral services were incomplete Thursday, but family members said his ashes would be placed in the columbarium on the grounds of the Naval Academy.

In addition to his daughter, Commander Brown is survived by his junior high school sweetheart and wife of 50 years, the former Crystal Malone; two sons, Wesley A. Brown Jr. of Turners Falls, Mass., and Gary Brown of Coral Gables, Fla.; another daughter, Carol Jackson of Long Beach, Calif.; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.


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