Feb 1

Black Sailors in the Great White Fleet, 1907-1909

Tuesday, February 1, 2011 12:01 AM


When the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Battle Fleet, known to history as the Great White Fleet, made its famous 1907-1909 world cruise, the composition of the Navy’s personnel was in the midst of a major transformation. Beginning with the introduction of steam power before the Civil War, and accelerating in pace at the turn of the century, the size, work, classification, and character of the enlisted force underwent a revolutionary metamorphosis.

Ratings changed as the skills needed evolved. Seamen were no longer needed who could reef sails, but electricians who knew how to operate electrical apparatuses were. Growth came principally in the skilled trades and engine-room responsibilities, while the number in the seaman’s branch declined.

Even as the enlisted ranks grew with the expanding Navy, enlisted men came to be more American. Far fewer were born abroad, and the percentage of naturalized citizens dropped as well. In 1899, 60 percent of the Navy enlisted men were native born, in 1910, 89 percent. In the same period, non-citizens fell from 20 percent to less than 1.5, while the percentage of naturalized citizens declined from 20 to 7.

The change in the character of recruits resulted from a deliberate Navy policy to fill its ranks with youths from middle America. The Navy sought solid, patriotic young men who possessed or could develop technical proficiencies

The Navy’s new recruiting policy was not designed to attract members of one class of citizens, African-American men, who made up an eighth of the American male population. Although the Navy had not yet become segregated and there were still black sailors among the ranks of the petty officers, the Navy of 1907 could not escape the racial attitudes of the American society of the time, and hence, of a large portion—although not all—of its white recruits. In 1896 the United States Supreme Court had declared that racial segregation in public accommodations was constitutional. Jim Crow laws and practices were soon the norm across much of the nation. At the same time that many enlisted whites objected to slinging their hammocks next to blacks and to eating their meals with them, naval leaders doubted the innate ability of blacks to master the new technical skills needed in the Navy. In rapid order, black sailors were relegated to the ranks of the mess men or to the laborious and hot work of the engine room crew, as members of which they would eat and sleep separately from the rest of the crew.

Despite the decline of opportunity for advancement in the Navy and the demeaning nature of relations with their white shipmates, roughly 1,700 African-Americans served in the Navy throughout the Theodore Roosevelt years. The conditions on board ship in many cases would have been less demeaning than what African-Americans encountered in a great number of towns and cities throughout the United States, particularly in the South.

Of the many hundreds of photographs of sailors in the world cruise of the Great White Fleet, only two have been identified that clearly include black sailors. взять займ онлайн

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