African American Sailors & Fishermen Throughout History

African American sailors and fishermen have made a mark on history, and many who did also made their mark on the crews they served with. The feats they accomplished, often against exceedingly high odds, are notable.

The following are names and a bit of history of a few African American sailors and fishermen of note. Some acted as a captain aboard vessels and others as crew during their long sails through maritime history.

 

Doris “Dorie” Miller, United States Navy, Cook third class

Born October 12, 1919, Waco, Texas

Died November 24, 1943, on Butaritari Atoll in the Gilbert Islands

We often hear of those who give themselves selflessly, and not all of their heroism and sacrifice is unto death. However, the bravery of “Dorie” Miller lived long after his passing, and he is a notable African American sailor. He served in the U.S. Navy as a cook in World War II. He was the first African American to receive the Navy Cross for velour.

The day Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was bombed, December 7, 1941, “Dorie” Miller was below decks doing laundry onboard the U.S.S. West Virginia. When called to his battle station, Dorie found that the gun magazine he was supposed to use was damaged. So, since he couldn’t shoot, he began carrying fellow sailors to safety.

One of those he saved was Captain Mervyn Bennion, mortally wounded. Then, as if Dorsey’s feats weren’t enough after the injured were out of harm’s way, he manned a 50. Caliber machine gun and fired it until he ran out of ammunition and was told to abandon ship.

Dorie’s term with the Navy ended the following year when the ship he was on was torpedoed off the coast of the Butaritari Atoll in the Gilbert Islands. Although Doris Miller’s tenure with the U.S. Navy was short-lived, his bravery in the face of danger has made him a legend in the annals of African American sailors.

 

Lynn Alfred “Lindsay” Williams, III

Born June 29, 1939, in Evanston, Illinois

In 1964, Alfred Williams paired with helmsman Dick Stearns, representing the Chicago Yacht Club in Tokyo, Japan’s summer Olympics. They won silver medals, sailing Star Class boats, and Alfred Williams was the first African American to win the honor. But unfortunately, little can be found about Mr. Williams, and after winning the Olympics, information about this sailor is vague.

 

Alfred Williams – Bass Master!

His first fishing memories were on the Pearl River in Mississippi, where people of all races would gather on the banks of the river to fish and visit. 

It was perch and brim that he caught there, and his fascination for bass didn’t come until he read his first copy of Bassmaster magazine.

After an 18-month tour in Vietnam, Alfred bought a runabout with a 50 horsepower motor, and his pursuit of a prize bass began in earnest.

 Although the first African American to qualify in the 1983 Bassmaster Classic, Alfred Williams and his partner placed 33rd. Nevertheless, he had ten top finishes in tournaments with over 50 boats, and sometimes as many as 300, over his professional career.

 

Carl Maxie Brashear

Born January 19, 1931, in Tonieville, Kentucky

Died July 25, 2006, at the Medical Center Portsmouth

At seventeen, Carl Maxie Brashear tried and failed to join the U.S. Navy at the young age of seventeen. Denied at first, he didn’t give up. On February 25, 1948, Maxie Brashear began his career at the U.S. Navy Diving and Salvage School in Bayonne, New Jersey. He graduated from the school as the first African American Navy diver in 1955.

In 1960, he finished his high school equivalency test, received his diploma, and joined the Navy’s deep-sea diving school. He graduated as a first-class diver in 1964. On January 17, 1966, while onboard the U.S.S. Hoist, he was helping to recover a hydrogen bomb.

A piece of equipment failed during the recovery, throwing a pipe across the deck. Brashear pushed his crewmates from danger; however, the pipe sheared his leg, and he almost died from blood loss. After his recovery and rehabilitation, he returned to diving in 1967 and was recertified as a navy diver a year later. In 1970, he became a master diver and finally retired from the Navy in 1993.

 

Captain Gail Harris, United States Navy, Retired

Born June 23, 1949, in East Orange, New Jersey

Captain Gail Harris was raised in Newark, New Jersey, and received her Bachelor of Science degree in Political Science from Drew University in 1971. Gail Harris entered the Navy in 1973 and was commissioned as a U.S. Navy Captain. She was the first African American woman to serve as a naval intelligence officer in a Navy aviation squadron.

Upon retiring in 2001, Captain Harris was the highest-ranking African American woman in the Navy. Although influential during her naval career, she has worked for Lockheed Martin as a subject matter specialist speaker and is a prolific writer.

 

Olivia Juliette Hooker

Born February 12, 1915, Muskogee, Oklahoma

Died November 21, 2018, White Plains, New York

Olivia Juliette Hooker became the first African American woman to join the U.S. Coast Guard in 1945. She became a SPAR (Semper Paratus Always Ready). During World War II, she earned the rank of Yeoman, Second Class, and served with the Coast Guard until her unit was disbanded in 1946 after the war had ended.

After her service with the United States Coast Guard, Olivia Hooker attended Fordham University and earned a degree in Psychology. After receiving her Master’s in psychology, Olivia Hooker began her career at a women’s correctional facility in Albany County, New York.

Olivia found that many of the women in the facility were considered to have severe learning disabilities. However, she worked to reevaluate the status of women and helped many of them pursue better education and employment.

At the young age of 87, after a long career, Olivia Hooker joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary in Yonkers, New York, and served as a volunteer. She died at her home in White Plains, New York, of natural causes, on November 21, 2018, at the age of 103.

Her legacy lives on as the name of the Dining Facility at the Staten Island Coast Guard station. The training facility at the Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., is named after her, also. Although gone now, Olivia Juliette Hooker blazed a trail for the African Americans who came after her.

 

African Americans in the Maritime World

The water and shipping was a place that welcomed African American captains of merchant and pirate ships in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The succession of African Americans into the Coast Guard, Navy, as fishermen, Olympic sailors, and those who became writers, their heritage is renowned, yet little known.

But a few notable African Americans have made their mark on the boating world. Many more have left their mark on time and were whalers, surfers, and sailors, and without their contributions, the world would be a different place.

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