The primary federal agency with maritime authority for
Spanning more than 200 years, the history of the Coast
Guard is as diverse as it is long. Unlike some federal agencies, the Coast
Guard did not begin at any one time or with any single purpose. Today’s
Coast Guard is a collection of other federal organizations no longer in
existence. The Revenue Cutter Service, forerunner of the Coast Guard, was
established in 1790 under the Department of the Treasury. Congress
authorized the building of the first fleet of ten cutters (a vessel 65 feet
in length or more that can accommodate a crew for an extended deployment).
The Service was renamed the Coast Guard in 1915 when
it merged with the Life-Saving Service, which began in 1878. Established in
1789, the Lighthouse Service joined the Coast Guard in 1939. In 1946, the
Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection was permanently transferred to
the Coast Guard. After 177 years in the Treasury Department, the Coast Guard
transferred to the newly formed Department of Transportation on April 1,
The Coast Guard is a complex organization of people,
ships, aircraft, and shore stations. The Service is decentralized
administratively and operationally. Coast Guard personnel respond to tasks
in several mission and program areas. This multi-mission approach enables a
relatively small organization to respond to public needs in a wide variety
of maritime activities and to shift focus at short notice.
The Coast Guard’s four main missions are maritime
law enforcement, maritime safety, environmental protection and national
security. These missions mandate the Coast Guard remain constantly ready to
defend the United States while also ensuring national security and
protecting national interests. The service is also to minimize loss of life
and property, personal injury and property damage at sea in
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE REVENUE CUTTER SERVICE
Today’s U.S. Coast Guard is an amalgamation of five
predecessors: the Revenue Cutter Service; the Life-saving Service (this and
the Revenue Cutter Service merged in 1915); the Lighthouse Service (absorbed
in 1939); and the Bureau of Navigation and Steamboat Inspection, itself a
merger of two agencies (added to Coast Guard in 1946).
The Coast Guard traces its primary root to the Revenue
Cutter Service, which was a "military" organization from its
inception and which element has modeled the character of the Coast Guard
probably more than any other.
The first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander
Hamilton, proposed the Federal government accept public responsibility for
safety at sea. On August 7, 1789, President George Washington approved the
enabling Ninth Act of Congress. To counter the smuggling and other illegal
activities rampant at this time,
The enabling legislation, the Organic Act, provided
for establishment and support of ten cutters (vessels 65 feet in length or
more, that can accommodate a crew for extended deployment) to enforce the
The first commissioned officer was Hopley Yeaton,
commanding officer of the Revenue cutter Scammel. Yeaton, a
veteran of the Continental Navy, owned a slave named
Historical records of the Service reveal that the
practice of officers using slaves as stewards, cooks and seamen on board
Revenue cutters appears to have been a common one. A Service regulation
dated November 1, 1843 officially banned this practice by prohibiting any
slave "from ever being entered for the Service, or to form a complement
of any vessel of the Revenue Marine of the
Before 1843, Revenue cutter captains’ use of slaves
and other African Americans had been restricted. Captain W.W. Polk, USRCS,
commanding the Revenue cutter
In the general instructions for the government of the Revenue Cutter service of December last, by one paragraph is prohibited the employment of persons of color, unless by the special permission of the Secretary of the Treasury
I beg leave here to observe that I have never owned a slave in the Cutter Service. I have however a colored boy, a native of N. York and of course free, he was given to me by Capt. M.C. Perry of the Navy. He is now bound to me under Laws of Delaware until age 21.
If it would not be incompatible with the rules laid down by the Hon. Secretary I have respectfully to suggest that I may be permitted to employ the boy as a servant on board. He is an expert sailor for his age and competent to the duty of a boy of the first class. I would further respectfully ask if the Commanders of Cutters are permitted to employ apprentices, and if so how many.
Secretary Ingham replied six days later that there
"will be no objections to your retaining your servant Boy and shipping
colored persons as cooks and stewards." The following month, Acting
Secretary Asbery Dickens assured Captain Richard Derby, USRCS, commanding
the Revenue cutter Morris, that he had "permission of the
department to employ free colored persons as cook and steward of the Morris."
Since 1794, the Revenue Marine Service had been
carrying out the important mission of preventing importation of slaves into
the territorial limits of the United States. Although the law of March 22, 1794, prohibiting the slave trade between
the United States and foreign countries, did not specifically direct the
revenue cutters to aid in its enforcement, "they were nevertheless
instructed to do so; and their connection with efforts to suppress the
traffic, begun under this Act, did not cease until the occasion for such
efforts had entirely disappeared."
Illustrating this mission, the revenue cutters
The following entry in the Service’s annual report
for 1846 was typical: "Several captures of piratical vessels, which at
the time infested the Florida keys, were made by Captain Jackson and others,
and, having full cargoes of slaves destined for Amelia Island, were carried into American waters and confined."
While the status of African Americans in the
MICHAEL A. HEALY,
Captain Michael A. Healy, the only African American to
have a command or commission in any of the Coast Guard’s predecessor
services, commanded the cutter Bear from 1887 to 1895. Healy retired
as the third highest-ranking officer from the Revenue Cutter Service.
One of ten children born in Macon,
As First Lieutenant, Healy was ordered aboard the
cutter Rush, to patrol Alaskan waters for the first time. He became
known as a brilliant seaman and was considered by many the best sailor in
the North. A feature article in the January 28, 1884
Healy distinguished himself when he took command of
the cutter Bear, considered by many the greatest polar ship of its
time, in 1886. The ship was charged with "seizing any vessel found
sealing in the
On one of Bear’s annual visits to King
The Coast Guard named an icebreaker for Michael Healy, in acknowledgment of his inspiring commitment to the Service, including his invaluable assistance to Alaska Natives.
SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR: HEROES OF THE REVENUE CUTTER HUDSON
During the Spanish-American War, two African American
cuttermen distinguished themselves at the Battle of Cardenas Bay in Cuba. On 11 May 1898 the Revenue Cutter
Hudson, armed with two six-pounders, joined two U.S. Navy gunboats and a torpedo
boat for a raid into the Spanish-fortified bay. Careful to avoid mines,
three of the vessels moved into the channel, one gunboat provided supporting
fire. Once inside the bay, they spotted their target. Hudson
and the torpedo boat, USS Winslow, moved at full speed to attack the
Spanish gunboats moored to the sugar wharves. The second Navy gunboat held
back to support their attack with her 4-inch guns.
Before they reached point-blank range, the Spanish
shore batteries were hitting Winslow. Firing smokeless powder,
the Spanish guns could only be located by their intermittent flashes.
Meanwhile, the American gunners, hampered by smoke from their own black
powder, returned fire. The
Hudson alone fired 135 shells in just twenty minutes. Helping to sustain this
rapid rate of fire was
Hudson's African American steward, Savage, who passed ammunition in a
With advantages in position, cover, and visibility,
the Spanish fired on the ships from five different directions with solid
shot and shrapnel. "Shells screamed overhead and lashed the water all
around," recalled one cutterman.
For almost half an hour Winslow escaped serious
damage. Then two shells ripped into her. With a boiler and her steering
engine wrecked, she began drifting toward the beach. The Spanish then
concentrated their fire on her. Hudson
now stood shoreward into the hail of the "very fierce" fire and to
take Winslow into tow. When only 100 feet away, the cuttermen watched
in horror as an exploding shell cut down four sailors waiting to catch the
heaving line. Other hands caught the line and made it fast. With that
began moving toward safety. "The sound, smoke, and smell of
battle faded into the distance, into the past, leaving
In his after-action report,
Hudson's Commanding Officer spoke highly of his men:
Each and every member of the crew from the boatswain down to Moses Jones, the colored boy who attached himself to the after gun and never failed to have a shell ready when it was needed, did his whole duty cheerfully and without the least hesitation. This appears more the remarkable in view of the fact that none of them had ever been under fire before, and that the guns were without protection or shelter of any kind. They deserve the most substantial recognition in the power of the Government for their heroic services upon this occasion.
The courage of the crew, including Steward Savage and
Cook Moses Jones, was recognized by a joint resolution of Congress, acting
upon the recommendation of President William McKinley:
In the face of a most galling fire from the enemy’s guns, the revenue cutter HUDSON, commanded by First Lieutenant Frank H. Newcomb, United States Revenue Cutter Service, rescued the disabled WINSLOW, her wounded commander and remaining crew. The commander of the
kept his vessel in the very hottest fire of the action, although in constant danger of going ashore on account of the shallow water, until he finally got a line fast to the WINSLOW and towed that vessel out of range of the enemy’s guns, a deed of special gallantry. HUDSON
I recommend that, in recognition of the signal act of heroism of First Lieutenant Frank H. Newcomb, United States Revenue Cutter Service, above set forth, the thanks of Congress be extended to him and to his officers and men of the HUDSON; and that a gold medal of honor be presented to Lieutenant Newcomb, and silver medal of honor to each of his crew who served with him at Cardenas.
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE U.S. LIGHTHOUSE SERVICE
Before construction of the first U.S.
lighthouse in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1716, only bonfires or blazing barrels of pitch on headlands guided
ships to port at night.
Responsibility for navigational aids was assumed by
the Federal government in 1789 when the Lighthouse Service was part of the
Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine Bureau. From 1852 to 1910, the
responsibility for aids came under the rule of the Lighthouse Board, then
shifted to the Commerce Department in 1903. The Service was a Commerce
responsibility until it was returned to the Treasury and the Coast Guard.
The history of African Americans in the U.S.
Lighthouse Service is sketchy. The first recorded mention of an African
American was in 1718, when a slave who worked at the Boston Lighthouse
perished with the keeper and his family during a storm. There are recorded
instances of African Americans serving aboard early lightships as cooks,
probably due to an 1835 regulation specifically forbidding the hiring of
African Americans in other capacities. An elderly African American
woman is described as tending the Simons Island Light in 1836, when the
keeper was incapacitated by gout.
On a stormy March evening in 1847, an African American
sailor knocked loudly on the tower door of the Isle of Shoals Lighthouse off
the New Hampshire coast. He informed the assistant keeper that a brig was ashore on the rocks
below the light. The keeper later learned that the sailor had faced almost
certain death to get help for his shipmates. In 1852 the New Point
Comfort Lighthouse in Virginia
was run by a retired sea captain and his assistant, a woman slave.
A famous example of valor by an African American is
that of the slave Assistant to the Keeper of the Cape Florida Light on Key
Biscayne, one of the oldest lighthouse towers in the United States. During the Seminole Indian Wars in 1836, Keeper John W.B. Thompson and his
African American assistant took refuge in the lighthouse, where they were
besieged throughout the day and into the night. Musket shots at the
attackers kept them from the tower until dark, when the Seminole Indians set
fire to the door and the lowest plank-boarded window.
The flames were fierce, fed by yellow pine wood and
oil cans punctured by the Indians’ shots, and the two men were driven to
the top of the tower. The keeper cut away the stairs halfway up from the
bottom and managed to confine the fire within the tower for a time by
covering over the scuttle leading to the lantern. But the intense heat and
flames drove the two men out of the lantern and down on the edge of a
two-foot platform where they were nearly roasted alive.
Stretched out for momentary relief from cramping, the
arms and legs of the victims were instant targets for the Indians’ shots
from below. Gas from the flaming lantern burst in all directions. In
desperation, Keeper Thompson threw a keg of gunpowder down the scuttle. It
exploded instantly and shook the tower from top to bottom but failed to
demolish the structure and the two men.
Shortly thereafter, the Assistant died of his wounds.
As the keeper prepared to end his torture by jumping off the ledge, the fire
fell to the bottom of the tower and a stiff breeze provided some relief.
Assuming both men were dead, the Indians left the tower and set fire to the
Severely burned and wounded, the keeper lay wounded
far from the ground in an apparently hopeless position. He managed to make a
signal from a piece of blood-soaked clothing that had not burned. Later in
the day he sighted the schooner Motto and the sloop-of-war USS Concord,
which had heard the explosion 12 miles off and had come to his assistance.
After other rescue methods had failed, the rescuers fired twine from their
muskets, fastened to a ramrod, with which the keeper managed to haul up a
tail block and secure it to an iron stanchion. Two men were hoisted up and
soon the keeper was lowered to the ground and given medical aid.
Thanks to the assistant who had given his life in
defense of the lighthouse, and to the crews of Motto and
Concord, Keeper Thompson, crippled for life, survived the harrowing experience.
Rebuilding of the lighthouse after the Seminole attack was authorized in
1837. In 1855, the tower was raised to 95 feet. The lighting
apparatus was destroyed in 1861 during the Civil War and was not restored
The light continued to guide mariners as they passed
the dangerous Florida Reef. On June 15, 1878, Fowey Rocks light was
AFRICAN AMERICANS IN THE LIFESAVING SERVICE
The African Americans employed by the Life-Saving
Service were experienced fishermen and oystermen who had lived along the
Beginning around 1875, records show the presence of
African Americans at the following Life-Saving Stations. In what is now the
Fifth Coast Guard District:
These experienced seamen cooked, patrolled the beach,
and participated in various duties that became integral to their work as
surfmen. A typical Life-Saving Station day included such routines as
cleaning the station, patrolling the beaches, drilling in the use of life
cars, practicing launching of the station’s lifeboat, practicing with the
breeches buoy, throwing a line (firing the gun) to a representation of a
wreck, sanding and painting the boats, traveling to pick up mail and
supplies, practicing resuscitation or repairing equipment.
The primary duty of crews at Life-Saving Stations was
to aid ships in distress . African Americans saved many lives and preserved
property in so doing. The story of Richard Etheridge, first African
American keeper of Pea Island, North Carolina Lifeboat Station, is an inspiring first chapter in the celebrated history of
the lifeboat station that was built during the winter of 1878-79 and
initially manned by whites. From the time of Etheridge’s assuming command
in 1880, Pea Island
was staffed by African Americans until the station was closed in 1947, after
which the area became a wildlife refuge.
Members of the Berry family who were serving in the Coast Guard, circa 1942;
Maxie Berry, Sr., is on the far left.)
RICHARD ETHERIDGE: KEEPER, PEA
The majority of published information on the Life-Saving Service celebrates the accomplishments of the all-African American crew at Pea Island Life-Saving Station in North Carolina.
(The crew of
the Pea Island Life-Saving Station, ca. 1890; Keeper Richard Etheridge is on
the far left.)
In 1879, Charles F. Shoemaker, Assistant Inspector of the
Life-Saving Service, recommended Richard Etheridge to assume keepership at
I examined this man, and found him to be 38 years of age, strong, robust physique, intelligent and able to read and write. He is reputed one of the best surfmen on this part of the coast of
Shoemaker recommended that Etheridge select a crew of
African Americans, two from stations No. 10, two already at Pea Island
(W.B. Daniels and W.R. Davis) and two others of Etheridge’s choosing.
Adding that he was "aware that no colored man holds the position of
Keeper in the Life-Saving Service," Shoemaker explained that Etheridge
was such an excellent surfman that "the efficiency of the Service [at Pea
Appointed Keeper of Pea Island Life-Saving Station on
January 24, 1880, Richard Etheridge became the first African American keeper
in the Service. He was born in 1842 and raised near
On October 11, 1896, Etheridge’s rigorous training
drills proved invaluable. The three-masted schooner, the E. S. Newman,
was caught in a terrifying storm. En route from
The crew was rounded up and launched the surfboat.
Battling the strong tide and sweeping currents, the dedicated lifesavers
struggled to make their way to a point opposite the schooner, only to find
there was no dry land. The daring, quick-witted Etheridge tied two of
his strongest surfmen together and connected them to shore by a long line.
They fought their way through the roaring breaks and finally reached the
schooner. The seemingly inexhaustible
AFRICAN AMERICAN COAST GUARDSMEN IN DEFENSE OF AMERICA
The Coast Guard has served in every war from the
American Revolution through the Persian Gulf conflicts. During World
War I, 15 Coast Guard cutters, some 200 officers and 5,000 enlisted men went
into action as part of the U. S. Navy. By World War II, the Coast
Guard had 802 vessels, and its personnel manned 351 Navy and 288 Army craft.
Shore stations increased from 1,096 to 1,774, and by the end of the War,
Coast Guard personnel numbered 171,168.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt made clear that
African Americans would be integrated into the general ranks of the Coast
Guard and Navy, Secretary of the Navy Knox announced in April1942 that
African Americans would be accepted in capacities other than messmen.
The first group of 150 African American volunteers was recruited and sent to
Manhattan Beach Training Station in New York
in the spring of 1942. Here, they received instruction in seamanship,
knot typing, lifesaving and small-boat handling. Classes and other official
activities were integrated, with sleeping and mess facilities still
segregated. African Americans who qualified for specialized training
after the four-week basic course became radiomen, pharmacists, yeomen,
coxswains, electricians, carpenters’ boatswains 2nd mate.
Organized induction and assignment of a limited number
of African American volunteers was terminated in December, 1942, when
President Roosevelt ended volunteer enlistment of most military personnel.
For the remainder of the World War II, the Coast Guard came under the
Selective Service Law, which included a racial quota system.
African Americans continued to be assigned to steward duties and were often
ordered to serve at important battle stations. The majority were
assigned to shore duty, including security and labor details and working as
yeomen, storekeepers, and in other capacities. The second
all-African-American station (Pea Island
was the first) was organized at Tiana Beach, New York. Other African Americans served on horse and dog patrols as lookouts
for enemy infiltration along the coast.
(Left: CBM Cecil B.
Foster, O.I.C. of Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Tiana from 1942-1944)
so many African Americans assigned to shore duty, manpower planners found it
difficult to rotate white Coast Guardsmen from sea to shore duty without
transferring African Americans to cutters, which would result in integrating
the vessels. In June 1943, LT Carlton Skinner proposed that a group of
African American seamen receive practical seagoing experience in a
completely integrated operation. The Commandant agreed and LT Skinner
was promoted to LCDR and assigned to the weather ship USS Sea Cloud
(IX-99) as her
commanding officer. He had an integrated crew of 173 officers and men,
of whom four officers and 50 petty officers were African American.
Prominent among them was the world-recognized American
painter, Combat Artist PO3/c Jacob Lawrence (left), whose work is represented in
the collections of The Smithsonian Institution, The Museum of Modern Art,
He was honored along with Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, and W.E.B. DuBois by New Masses magazine. With his discharge from the service, Lawrence continued his career as an artist. In 1946 he received a Guggenheim Post-Service Fellowship. With this award he produced his "War" series which depicted the emotional responses to the war. Throughout the remainder of his life, Lawrence continued to produce prodigiously. He was, for example, commissioned to paint murals for the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and the Bicentennial in 1976, as well as covers for Time. He also joined the faculty of the University of Washington in Seattle.
Although Sea Cloud was decommissioned in November 1944, its
year of operation demonstrated that no racial incidents occurred and that
the integrated crew was in every way as efficient as any other. The
experiment paved the way for other African Americans to serve in crews not
completely segregated. During World War II, the other Coast Guard
vessel with a significant degree of integration was the frigate USS Hoquiam
(PF-5), operating out of Adak in the Aleutian Islands during 1945.
A well-known example of African American military
expertise was the crew of stewards that manned a battle station on the
cutter Campbell (WPG-32) which rammed and sank a German submarine on
February 22, 1943. Louis Etheridge, Captain of the African American
gun crew, was presented the bronze medal on February 25, 1952, and a
personal letter of congratulations from the Commandant. The crew
earned medals for "heroic achievement."
African Americans who died in the line of duty is Charles W. David, Jr., a
messman aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Comanche (WPG-76) that came to
the aid of a torpedoed transport in the
As the war progressed, African Americans advanced into
the petty officer ranks. By August 1945, 965 African Americans were
petty officers or warrant officers, often in the general services.
Many of these officers worked at shore stations and served as instructors at
commissions were Joseph Jenkins, who went from Manhattan Beach
to Officer Candidate School (OCS) at the Coast Guard Academy. Jenkins
graduated as the first African American Ensign in the Coast Guard Reserve in
April 1943, almost a full year before African Americans were commissioned in
the Navy. Harvey C. Russell assigned to the Hoquiam, located in
to serve as executive officer on a cutter in the Philippines, there he assumed responsibility of a racially integrated vessel shortly
after the war. Clarence Samuels, a warrant officer, was commissioned
as a LTJG and assigned to the Sea Cloud.
Joseph Jenkins and Clarence Samuels aboard the Sea Cloud, 1944.)
Coast Guard was the first service to accept women into its academy and the
first to assign them as commanding officers of armed vessels and air
stations. Service by women in the Coast Guard goes back 50 years.
The Coast Guard Women’s Reserve began in November 1942 during World War
SPAR recruits Julie Moselsy Pole, on the left; Winifred Byrd, on the right.)
In the fall of 1944 the Coast Guard recruited
five African American women as reservists, four weeks after it was announced
that the recruitment of women, except for replacements, would be stopped
November 23, 1944.
Now fully integrated, the Coast Guard utilized African
American personnel in every capacity during the Vietnam War. No longer are
African American personnel limited from serving as integral team members in
wartime or in the Coast Guard’s many peacetime humanitarian missions.
JOURNALIST ALEX P. HALEY, 1921-1992
Born in Ithaca, New York, August 11, 1921, Alex P.
Haley graduated from high school at 15, attended State Teacher’s College
in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for two years and, at the urging of his
father, enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1939 as a steward, assisting cooks.
Steward was the only rank in which most African Americans could enter the
Coast Guard at the time Haley enlisted. During his years of service
Haley developed and honed the writing skills that made him the first Coast
Guard journalist. He continued to write the worldwide best seller Roots,
which received the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and The Autobiography
of Malcolm X based on Haley’s extensive conversations with the former
chief spokesman for the Nation of Islam.
Serving as ship’s cook in the Pacific during World
War II, Haley spent most of his Coast Guard duty in long months at sea.
While at sea on the cutter Mendota, Haley took up letter writing, and
in one week could knock out 40 letters and receive just as many replies. His
mail-call success prompted shipmates to enlist his help with their letters,
including love letters.
his time at sea on various cutters, Haley set down sea stories recounted by
old salts aboard. Eight years and hundreds of rejection slips later,
he had his first story published. In 1944, Haley was assigned to edit
"Out Post," the official Coast Guard Publication. In 1945 he
won the Ship’s Editorial Association Award and served as assistant to the
public relations officer at Coast Guard headquarters until 1959.
Haley transferred to the journalist rate in 1949 and
was the first Coast Guardsman to attain the rank of chief petty officer in
that rate (right, Haley after his
promotion) when the Coast Guard promoted him in 1950. His
primary job was writing stories to promote the Coast Guard to the media.
Toward the end of his tenure with the Coast Guard, Haley researched and
wrote about the history of the Coast Guard’s Revenue Cutter Service and
the Life-Saving Service, which demonstrated the talent that would make him a
famous journalist and author. His ability to transform meticulous research
into informative, interesting narrative became his trademark.
After 20 years of service, Haley retired as Chief
Journalist in 1959 after serving in World War II and
After retiring from the Coast Guard, Haley continued
to write professionally, including articles for Reader’s Digest and
Playboy, and best-selling books and TV mini series. Roots
has been translated into 37 languages and sold 6 million copies in hardcover
and millions more in paperback. The blockbuster television mini-series
"Roots: The Saga of an American Family," was broadcast on ABC in
1977 and was watched by an estimated 130 million viewers.
Since his Coast Guard days, Haley completed much of
his writing at sea. He wrote A Different Kind of Christmas, the
story of a slave’s escape on the Underground Railway, during a freighter
voyage from Long Beach, California
to Australia. In 1973 Haley was presented with the Distinguished Public Service
Award and a citation from Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Bender
and Rear Admiral John F. Thompson, Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard
Academy. Haley worked to promote literacy and participated in programs
that encouraged young people to remain in school. To this day, thanks
to the famous Coast Guard veteran, eight students, selected on the basis of
economic need, not race, are supported from freshman year through graduate
school by Alex Haley’s scholarship fund.