Samuel L. Gravely, Jr.
National Visionary

June 4, 1922 - October 22, 2004
First African American to rise to the rank of Admiral in the U.S. Navy

Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. was the first African American officer to become an admiral in the United States Navy. During his 38 years in the military, Gravely distinguished himself as a naval communications expert, war and peacetime ship captain, and eventually commander of the Third Fleet.

Born on June 4, 1922 in Richmond, Virginia, Admiral Gravely came from modest roots. What he lacked in economic privilege he compensated for with an intense work ethic. Working and studying straight through the summers, he managed to finish high school at age fifteen and still had enough time to spare to work odd jobs to save money for college and care for his terminally ill mother.

Gravely as a young man
After Pearl Harbor was bombed, young Samuel Gravely decided to pre-empt the draft and joined the Navy. Gravely enlisted in 1942 during the Navy’s “experiment” to allow African Americans to serve in roles other than messmen. The Admiral’s tireless work ethic and his exceptional intelligence soon paid off when he and two white colleagues became only 3 of 120 seamen to pass a test granting them the passage to officer training school. He soon became the first black officer in the Navy serving on the first all black manned Navy sea vessel. In spite of his achievements, he was frustrated with the racism and discrimination so prevalent in the Navy. Seeing no room for advancement, Gravely resigned from his post after the War.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
His absence from the armed services lasted only four years. In 1949, he answered a call from the Bureau of Naval Personnel and embarked upon a Naval career that would span 31 years. Steep and arduous, the Admiral’s ascent to the top of the naval career ladder was nothing short of groundbreaking. In addition to being the first African American to command a U.S. Navy warship, he was also the first to command an American warship under combat conditions, the first African American to command a major naval warship, the first African American to achieve the rank of admiral—eventually climbing as high as a three star admiral, another first for African Americans—and the first African American to command an American fleet.

As a civilian, the Admiral Gravely divided his time between high-powered consulting, college scholarship development and speaking engagements around the world. He lived with his wife on their farm in Virginia until his death in October, 2004.



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