Book Review Trailblazer, The U.S. Navy’s First Black Admiral, Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr.

By Conway

B. Jones, Jr.

“Trailblazer, The U.S. Navy’s First Black Admiral,” by Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., USN with Paul Stillwell, and Afterword by Alma B. Gravely.

“Trailblazer, The U.S. Navy’s First Black Admiral”, is a tour de force first-person account of the life of Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. In his youth, he learned well the lessons of Jim Crow in his home-town of Richmond, Virginia. In spite of the various obstacles placed in his path by a narrow-minded society, he went on to become one of the first African Americans to be commissioned as an officer and, ultimately, as the very first African  American officer to attain flag rank in the U.S. Navy.

Admiral Gravely tells his story with the help of Paul Stillwell, who is a Navy veteran, editor and author of “The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers.” In the Trailblazer book, we see through Admiral Gravely’s eyes and in his voice how he climbed the ladder in the Navy to become the first African American to command a ship, the first to command a fleet, and the first to become an admiral in 1971. His ground-breaking achievements were a tribute to his deeply ingrained strength of character, fiercely dedicated temperament, and dogged perseverance.

Trailblazer also details the personal legacy of Admiral Gravely, the husband and family man, as seen through the eyes of his devoted and loving wife, Alma, including their whirlwind courtship, which lead to their marriage in 1946 – a rich and full union that lasted 58 years – to the death of their beloved older son Robbie in 1978, and finally to Alma’s making peace with the certainty of his impending death.

“Sammie,” as Alma affectionately referred to the Admiral, very wisely drew from a diverse pool of experiences, as well as from leadership examples provided by his fellow officers, in modeling his own command style during his impressive naval service career. He became THE role model to emulate and set a fine example for thousands of African American naval officers who came after him.

Admiral Gravely poignantly describes one of the more distasteful aspects that made an excruciatingly painful and enduring impression on him during his first duty posting, after his graduation from midshipman school in December 1941. He had returned to Camp Robert Smalls , where he had started his naval service two years earlier, only to find that he was still living in a very clearly segregated world. The naval training station at Great Lakes had quarters for white officers, but not for him. The officer’s club was open to white officers, but not to him. To add insult to injury, after he pulled daily watches encompassing the whole camp, he had to return to the distinctly separate “Black camp” each night to sleep. Gravely, regarding this blatant disparity in the service ranks (and society as a whole) as a formidable obstacle, noted, “This was one of the hardest things for me to take of anything that happened to me during my Navy career.”

Admiral Gravely always relished and welcomed any and every opportunity for additional training, personal enrichment, and overall challenge of being a part of something new. Continuous educational growth formed the bulwark of his life’s mantra. He never knew what he would encounter in the next stage of his life, but he knew for certain what he was leaving behind. He just wanted to be “a regular sailor.”

Samuel L. Gravely was “a regular sailor” … and then some! As Rear Admiral Barry C. Black, USN (Ret.) said in his advanced praise of the book, “Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. blazed a trail of courage, hospitality, humility, excellence, faithfulness, and patriotism. His pioneering accomplishments opened doors of opportunity for thousands, enabling me to become the Chief of Navy Chaplains and the 62nd Chaplain of the Unites States Senate. I stand on his strong shoulders.”

Trailblazer is an inspiring story about an exceptionally unique barrier-breaking and visionary gentleman, Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., USN. It is a very humbling regular sailor’s account of triumph and growth in the face of adversity and of his awe inspiring legacy to our Nation and our U.S. Navy.

One certainly need not be a fan or student of the military realm to appreciate the dedication and drive of this remarkable man, who overcame, with great courage, grace, and poise, every challenge he faced as the Trailblazer.