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Wesley Anthony Brown, born April 3, 1927 in Baltimore, Maryland, has passed away aged 85. He was the first African American graduate of the U.S Naval Academy, in Annapolis, Md. Brown retired at the rank of Lieutenant Commander in June 1969 after serving 20 years in the Navy's Civil Engineer Corps.
Brown graduated from Dunbar High School, where he was Cadet Corps Battalion Commander during his senior year. He became the first in his family to attend college, at Howard University in Washington, D.C. A retired naval officer, Lt. Cmdr. Brown became the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. He was nominated for admission and later appointed by New York Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Brown entered the academy on June 30, 1945 and graduated on June 3, 1949.
He served in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Brown also built military service member homes in Hawaii, roads in Liberia, wharves in the Philippines, a nuclear power plant in Antarctica, and a desalination plant in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Brown was an accomplished athlete, running cross-country with Jimmy Carter, the 39th president, who was also a Naval Academy graduate.
When he retired, Brown consulted on construction projects and joined the faculty at Howard University as a physical facilities analyst. He served as chairman of D.C.'s Congressional Representative Eleanor Holmes Nortonís Service Academy Selection Board. Brown was a volunteer motivational speaker and particularly enjoyed talking with DC high school students and midshipmen of the USNA Black Studies Club during Black History Month.
In the July 2008 USBE Online interview below with Lango Deen, Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown, said that the Naval field house named after him went a long way toward convincing young black men and women to come to the Academy.
Let's Go Navy! The Life and Times of Lt. Commander Wesley A. Brown
Build it and they will play. Thatís what US Naval Academy personnel probably thought as they broke ground for a new field house in 2006. Two years on, in May 2008, the modern $45-million complex, which houses the most advanced technology to boost the combat preparedness of Annapolisí midshipmen, was dedicated to the first black graduate. Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown, 81, told USBE Online, that the Naval field house named for a living African American went a long way toward convincing young black men and women to come to the Academy.
USBE: Commander Brown, you entered the Academy in 1945 and retired from the Navy in 1969. How would you compare Navy recruiting in your day to now? Lt. Cmdr Brown: Circumstances are quite different. Those who have watched this [recruiting efforts] very closely realize that, perhaps, we don't have enough people in the services. The Iraq war is certainly not popular, and double and triple tours of duty are not encouraging to anyone. There is also the question of whether we still need troops in Japan, Germany, and other places. I think the fact that the [Iraq] war is not popular has had an effect. What is happening in Iraq is now a matter of snipers and guerilla warfare, which is difficult to fight.
USBE: How has the world of soldiering changed since WW II? Lt. Cmdr Brown: Tom Brokaw has spoken about our generation as ďthe Greatest Generation,Ē and there is some merit to that. Studs Terkel referred to WW II as ďthe Good War.Ē I was born in the twenties. By 1930-31, we had the Great Depression . Itís impossible to describe to you what universal depression was like. Very few men had jobs. Most people lived with their grandparents, parents, or with others. I can recall people knocking on our back door asking for a slice of bread, which theyíd split among four people. My father made a dollar a day, and he was one of the few men who had work. He was a truck driver, and delivered produce to restaurants in Washington, DC.
The war in Europe required the United States to rearm; consequently plants opened up to build tanks and aircraft; and created administrative jobs. I was 15 years old, in high school at the time, but I was able to get a job working six nights a week from 4-12 pm in the Navy. I had about $5,000 saved up by the time I graduated from high school. Then I enlisted in the Army. Under the ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program), I went to Howard University as an electrical engineering major . I had the choice of other schools, but most colleges were segregated.
USBE: The conditions and opportunities that got young, black people like you into the military and your field were unique. Lt. Cmdr Brown: Prior to that time, African Americans werenít allowed to enlist. I joined the Navy [switching from Howard University] when the Naval Academy offered to pay for me to go to school. I graduated with a bachelor of science degree with a mechanical engineering major , and then went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. I graduated in 1951 with a bachelor's degree in civil engineering .
But when you look at the numbers of African Americans through the period of reconstruction, grandfather clauses, and poll taxes, the Navy has not had a good reputation among blacks. To have something like a building dedicated to a living African American could go a long way, symbolically, to convincing the black population that Navy policy has changed.
USBE: You retired from the Navy Civil Engineer Corps in 1969, what have you been doing since? Lt. Cmdr Brown: I went to work for New York State University Construction Fund at Stony Brook. Stony Brook had been a sleepy, liberal arts college. When I was hired they had a project to build a comprehensive health-science oriented university. They needed thirteen buildings. I was in that post for nine months, and I built a twelve-story graduate chemistry building, a biology building and a physics tower. I stayed with the construction fund for four years, and then joined the Dormitory Authority. I built the administration building, a couple of classrooms, and a Community College in New York. Then I got a position with Howard University, which I held until I retired again.
USBE: I can tell that you really enjoyed designing and building. Is that what attracted you to engineering? Lt. Cmdr Brown: I decided to become an engineer after a trip to the 1939 New York World Fair. Iíd won a competition as a newspaper boy, and we were taken to New York. After tours of the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, and Broadway, I was fascinated. I was 12 years old, and I couldnít stop staring at the buildings.
USBE: Do you think the same magic still works for 12-year olds? Lt.Cmdr Brown: With todayís challenges, I think itís awfully difficult to motivate a young person to make an evaluation. We had incentive from having gone through the Great Depression, and then there were the civil and accommodation rights eras. The GI Bill also helped people learn to be competitive. Today, one of the terrible scourges on the black community is drugs, and many poor teenagers are caught up in the fall out.
USBE: You had a heart attack some years back and the doctor was sure you werenít going to make it. Lt. Cmdr Brown: I woke up and my children were at the foot of my bed. My wife was squeezing my hand so tightly; I told her ĎIf you donít let go, Iím going to take you along with me.í But Iíve survived, with the help of a defilibrator. Iíve always been active. At the Naval Academy, I walked, jogged, and swam every morning. My thing was that in case a ship sank, I didnít want to drown because I couldnít swim 20 miles. So I swam several laps each morning.
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