James Hair was home alone in his modest three-story house in Hollis, a section of Queens in New York City, when the phone rang. He got up to answer, moving a bit more gingerly than he once did. Age had stolen his agility and time had taken the spring from his step. Slowed by a triple bypass, Hair, just shy of his sixty-seventh birthday, was no longer the athlete of his youth nor the powerful man of his prime. He was a retired social worker, at the dusk of life, not quite certain what to do with himself now that he was no longer working.
Hair picked up the phone. His son was on the other end of the line, calling from work and speaking with some urgency.
Take a look at the newspaper, James Hair Jr. said.
Hair grabbed a copy of The New York Times and, as instructed, turned to page a18. “8 of First Black Navy officers hold reunion at sea,” the headline read. Hair looked from the headline to the photo. He recognized the face. It belonged to Syl White, a man he hadn’t seen in nearly forty years.
“The United states Navy brought them back to sea today,” the first sentence read, describing the reunion on the USS Kidd off the coast of Virginia, “the eight surviving members of the Golden 13.”
“I’ll be damned,” Hair said, his eyes darting over the words again and again to be sure he hadn’t made a mistake. “I know I’m still alive.”
Hair pinched himself just to be sure.
“I know damn well I’m alive,” he said again, having passed this all-important tactile test. “Why aren’t I there?”
Hair dialed Navy Intelligence and told them about the Times article.
“I’m not with them,” he said, “but I’m a member of the Golden Thirteen.”
“Huh?” came a befuddled reply.
“Yeah, I’m a member of the Golden Thirteen.”
Yeah, Hair was sure.
The Navy took Hair’s name and address and told him to wait by the phone. Hair did as he was told, waiting in the home that had provided a foundation for him and his wife to raise three children. The kids had grown, moved out, and started lives of their own. Hair and his wife had divorced.
Hair had recently become involved with his church, attending services more frequently and reading the Bible. He was becoming more spiritual in his later years, though he still had not decided exactly how he would spend his retirement. So on this particular Wednesday morning in 1982, waiting for the Navy to get back to him was no problem, and he had plenty of time to talk when they did—which was good, because over the next several hours Hair received more than twenty phone calls from Navy headquarters as one official after another asked his name, his birthday, where he served, and much more.
I am James Edward Hair, he told them, explaining that he had enlisted in 1942 and attended boot training and quartermaster school at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. He worked on a tugboat, stationed at Brooklyn Navy Yard until early 1944 when he was selected to be one of the first black men to attend officer candidate school, a secret training course at Great Lakes that would forever change the Navy.
This year is the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the battles of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal are hardwired into our national memory. But one of the Navy’s most important battles took place just north of Chicago, when Hair and his colleagues broke one of the Navy’s most intractable color barriers to become the first African American ensigns, the first black men to wear Navy gold. Their story has largely been forgotten even as the lessons it tells are needed now more than ever. This Memorial Day, as we again face national trial, it is worth revisiting the Golden Thirteen’s legacy and appreciating how seemingly ordinary men overcame the longest of odds to overturn centuries of so-called wisdom and prove once more that honor and ability know no color line.
These men studied harder during their three months of training than they ever had in their lives, mastering in weeks what most spent years learning. They were supposed to be in bed at 10:30 but well past that hour they sat together in the bathroom, flashlights in hand, studying the lessons of the past day and preparing for the day ahead. They draped sheets over the windows so no one outside would notice the light. When it was over, they graduated with the highest grade-point average of any class in Navy history.
Hair remembered those early days of 1944 and wondered how the Navy had forgotten about him. It turned out to be a clerical mix-up. James Hair had entered the navy as James Hare, on the advice of his employers in the 1930s, who thought the fair-skinned young man might have a chance to pass for white if he spelled his name the way other white folks spelled it. Over the years, Hair reverted the spelling but had never informed the Navy. When James Hare could not be found, the Navy assumed he was dead.
Finally, a captain got on the line. “You are James Hair, aren’t you?”
“I certainly am,” Hair replied.
“Can you travel?” “
Oh yeah, yeah, I’m able to travel.”
“Could you get ready in three hours, because we’ll have somebody there to pick you up?”
Hair waited, wondering
Hair was driven to LaGuardia airport, named for the beloved mayor who led New York City during the days when Hair patrolled and protected its coast. He flew south to Norfolk, Virginia, a place once referred to as the “asshole of creation,” because it was so hostile toward black men. The Navy rented him a motel room and told him to rest up because tomorrow would be a big day.
The next morning Hair boarded a helicopter at Norfolk naval air station and flew twenty miles out to sea, landing on the deck of the USS Kidd, a guided missile destroyer.
Hair leaped off the helicopter, feeling spry and young. He looked around for the captain, wanting to ask permission to come aboard, just as he had been trained to do forty years before. But Hair could not get to the captain before his old Navy buddies started pummeling him with high-fives, back slaps, and hugs.
Dalton Baugh, Frank Sublett, John Reagan, Sam Barnes, George Cooper, Graham Martin, Syl White, and Jesse Arbor had not seen Hair since the end of the war. They were older, fatter, and balder than Hair remembered, but here on the ship, in this moment, they were young again.
“By the late ’70s, a decade after the civil rights movement, the Navy was ready to show them off.”
They kidded Hair for missing the first few reunions, which had begun in 1977, and joked that maybe he had been posing as a white man all these years, only to rejoin the race when the ceremonies and special treatment began. Aboard the ship the now nine surviving members were served lunch by white sailors while the USS Kidd’s only African American officer, Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Bruce Martin, stood in awe of these men—the Jackie Robinsons of the Navy.
“I am so pumped up to have these guys here,” Lieutenant Martin told a reporter. “These guys opened the door for us and if they hadn’t it might have been another 50 years before the Navy got black officers.”
For more than three decades these men, who had broken one of the most intractable color barriers in the Navy, were known only as “those Negro officers” or, later, as “those black officers.”
But Dennis Nelson, the only member of the Golden Thirteen to make a career out of the Navy, never stopped pushing for more recognition, and by the late 1970s, a decade after the civil rights movement had forever changed the status of black people in the United States, the Navy was newly proud of their accomplishment and ready to show them off. The surviving officers were feted as a symbol of racial integration, of progress, of pride.
The first reunion, which took two years to plan, was held in Berkeley, California, in 1977.
Captain Edward Sechrest, a Vietnam veteran who was assigned to the Navy recruiting command, coined the term “Golden Thirteen,” a bit of ingenious PR that gave the group a catchy nickname the Navy could use to tout their achievements.
There were nine who gathered that day to mark what they had accomplished 33 years earlier and remember their departed comrades.
It was during their first reunion that the legacy of the Golden Thirteen came into focus for these men. John Reagan, a member of the group who lost his 20-year-old son in Vietnam, had never seen more than a handful of black officers in the same room, but at the get-together in Berkeley, he saw dozens of black faces—lieutenants, captains, even an admiral.
“As the men began to pass, their story faded from most people’s memories.”
Reagan wasn’t the kind of man to take himself too seriously, but on that day he reflected on all that the Golden Thirteen had accomplished as other black navy officers walked over to pay their respects and salute these trailblazers.
“We owe it all to you,” one after the next said. “If it hadn’t been for you guys, we wouldn’t be here.”
Reagan just stood there—as awestruck as he’d ever been in his life.
Nelson used the occasion of the first reunion to encourage his mates to promote the Navy in black communities. He told them that the more black men entered the navy, the more black men would rise through the ranks.
They had one more mission, he told them.
The Golden Thirteen answered their country’s call once more.
All became members of the Navy Recruiting District Advisory Committees in their communities. Baugh was active in Boston. Sam Barnes worked around Washington, D.C. Cooper was elected president of the Navy League in Dayton, Ohio.
And they weren’t only interested in advancing African Americans. They celebrated women’s achievements, too. and at a time when many in the United states, especially older men, looked askance at the idea of gay sailors, Cooper and White told audiences that a person’s sexual orientation would have no impact on Navy efficiency, nor would it hamper morale or battle readiness. They swatted away the same arguments that were once used to keep them out of the service. “Ever since we’ve had a Navy, there’ve been gays in the Navy, and it has not ruined that Navy,” Cooper told NPR’s Neal Conan, nearly two decades before LGBT sailors could serve openly. “Gays are in every aspect of this society, and they operate effectively,” he said. “They operate just like anybody else. They operate just as well as women do, they operate just as well as blacks do. This is a part of living in our society today, and we have to accept it, and find out ways to live with it.”
The reunions continued every year, always sponsored by Navy recruiting command. The second was in New Orleans, then Orlando, then Washington, D.C., then Boston, and so on.
But as the men began to pass, their story faded from most people’s memories.
There would be brief mentions in local papers during Black History Month. A local diversity award was named for George Cooper in 2005. An Indianapolis park was named for Graham Martin in 2011. And in 2008, a Navy press officer gave President-elect Barack Obama a copy of Paul Stillwell’s The Golden Thirteen, an oral history.
“The fact that I was one of the first is only a statistic, and statistics bore me.”
The Navy used the memory of these thirteen officers to recruit young African Americans and steadily increased the percentage of black officers. But seventy-five years after the Golden Thirteen were commissioned, although African Americans made up 19 percent of the enlisted force, only 7 percent of the officers were black. As of January 2019, there were 54,151 officers in the US Navy; 42,376 were white and 3,916 were black.
And mentions of the Golden Thirteen remained few and far between.
Three years before he died, Syl White was asked by the History Maker’s Society to provide some recollections from his time in the Navy, because “not many people know of this story.”
A look of alarm came over White’s eighty-six-year-old face. “They don’t?” he said, raising his brows in disbelief. “I thought everybody knew it.”
Fifteen years later, White’s daughter Marilyn confessed that she didn’t know much about what her father had done. He didn’t talk much about the war or the barriers he broke.
Reginald Goodwin’s son didn’t know much either.
Neither did James Hair Jr., who said his father talked very little about his time in the Navy. Hair’s father had never let on to his son that he had been part of a special group. He didn’t have any plaques on the wall or memorabilia displayed. It was just something he had done when he was younger.
Even their wives knew little of their achievements. Willimeta Reagan, Lorraine Baugh, and Susan Lopez-Sublett, all of whom married their husbands decades after the war, didn’t know much about those years.
Lopez-Sublett said her husband just didn’t think the “kids these days” would be interested in what he had done a lifetime ago. She’d tease him and say how many things in this world are there left to be the first of, but he refused to brag about his place in history.
“Nobody wanted to be proud of them, Nobody acknowledged their achievement.”
Sam Barnes’ twenty-two-year-old daughter, Olga, was studying in the library at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, when, bored with her own words, she decided to take a break from working on a paper and peruse the newly created African American studies section. She ran her fingers across the bindings of the books on the shelf. By chance she pulled down a book on blacks in the military and was idly thumbing through its pages when she came across a picture of thirteen men standing in Navy uniforms. The caption said these were the first black officers. The man in the front row looked an awful lot like her father. She was so excited that she could not wait for the elevator and bolted down four flights of steps to a pay phone on the first floor.
“Dad, I’m holding this book. Were you one of the first blacks commissioned in the United States Navy?”
“Yes,” he matter-of-factly replied. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Olga asked incredulously.
“Well, a lot of people fought in the war.”
Dalton Baugh, similarly, regarded his place in history as accidental.
“Look, if I hadn’t been selected, an equally qualified black man would have done the same thing as me,” the MIT graduate said at the group’s first reunion. “He would have demonstrated the same skills. The fact that I was one of the first is only a statistic, and statistics bore me.”
Baugh died New Year’s Day, 1985, two years before the intake center at Great Lakes Naval Training Station was named in honor of the Golden Thirteen. To this day, a large framed photograph of the nation’s first thirteen black officers greets fresh boots when they arrive for basic training.
“It’s ironic we’re dedicating this building in your name,” Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely said at the ceremony in 1987. “For you, there was no graduation ceremony, no officers’ privileges.”
Lorraine Baugh attended the dedication ceremony at Great Lakes in her husband’s stead. She was so honored to be included among those great men, she said later, as she remembered how inspired she was to hear their stories. Her husband, she said, never talked much about the war. But at those reunions, she had heard of their trials and travails, how they knew that they’d have to be twice as good to receive half as much.
“That’s true with most black folk,” Baugh said. “We know we have to be better than anyone else because they are going to try their damndest to keep us out.”
She understood the bond the men shared. It had depth and substance. She could feel it being in their presence. They were from another time, when no one thought much of denying African Americans dignity or livelihood, when black men could disappear or be killed, leaving behind only a community too afraid for their own lives to ask any questions. “They had to provide for each other because of their blackness,” she said. “They knew they’d only survive if they had cohesiveness.”
She recounted that her husband often said the two high points of his life were being accepted to engineering school at MIT and earning his naval commission. When he announced to folks in Crossett, the tiny Arkansas town of his birth, that his ambition was to attend the famed Massachusetts school, they shook their heads, bemused and slightly sorry for this young dreamer. They asked, “How are you ever going to do that?” When he later returned wearing a Navy officer’s uniform, they stopped asking such questions. They all understood that Dalton Louis Baugh could do whatever he desired.
The pity was that her husband never saw the same respect and admiration from white men in the Navy. Lorraine Baugh recalled how her husband regretted that there had been no ceremony to mark their commissioning and how bitter he felt about the sailors who crossed the street to avoid saluting a black man.
“Nobody wanted to be proud of them,” she said. “Nobody acknowledged their achievement. When you think about it, it is so heartbreaking. You just feel so disrespected and unappreciated.”
But Baugh and the other members of the Golden Thirteen tolerated it all because that was the world they came from, and to do otherwise would have made it that much harder to change the world for those to come.
Riding in a staff car with a visiting reporter, being driven from the ceremony to the luncheon at Great Lakes in June 1987, Lorraine Baugh thought about all that had changed in the forty-three years since her husband had been commissioned. Through the windshield she could see the sentries dressed in perfectly pressed white uniforms, teenagers who looked barely old enough to shave, let alone fight. For them, World War II was ancient history. The battles they had heard of—Iwo Jima, Midway, Guadalcanal—were far different from the battles for respect her husband and the other black officers had waged. As she passed these fresh faces, they smartly snapped their hands to their hats. A staff car meant an officer was in sight.
“Oh, my beloved Dalton,” she said softly. “I only hope the good Lord is letting you see all this. There is that salute you never got.”
Excerpted and adapted from The Golden Thirteen: How Black Men Won the Right to Wear Navy Gold by Dan C. Goldberg. Copyright 2020. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.