Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Editorial Discrimination: The Norfolk Seabag and African American Mess Attendants

By Elijah Palmer
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Although many African Americans had served in the military during World War I, the Navy decreased the number of black Sailors in the years following the Armistice. By the early 1930s, there were not many left. But in 1933, the Navy started accepting new African American recruits into the Mess Attendant School at Norfolk. It should be remembered that other rates were closed to black sailors at this time.
Historical marker on Naval Station Norfolk (image from
In many ways, the Navy mirrored American society. Segregation and institutional racism towards African American Sailors can be seen by examining the pages of The Norfolk Seabag, the naval station's official newspaper.  Much coverage was aimed at new recruits and shared advice, events, and jokes. In this vein, the paper highlighted "honor men" almost every week, sharing names and biographical information (hometown, etc.). Starting in the mid-1930s, most issues included some pictures of the Sailors being mentioned. However, it was not until 1938 that the Seabag mentioned any mess attendant trainees from K-West or B-East. To make matters worse,  the paper did not include any pictures of the black Sailors chosen to be honor men, even while the number of pictures of white sailors increased.
While the Seabag did not present pictures of any African American honor men, the editors found it fitting to include this caricature of a mess attendant as decoration for one of the holiday menus. Clearly at least some viewed Sailors of color as only fitting into this stereotype.

The first picture of an African American sailor found in issues of the Seabag from 1934-1942 was on page four of the November 28, 1942 issue.  The story that went with it was about a young recruit who had walked 224 miles (over four trips) to enlist after being turned away several times. Although it was a tale of patriotism and perseverance, the writer was also patronizing in the way he overemphasized the young recruit's dialect.
In 1942, the Mess Attendant School was moved from Norfolk.  That same year, more ratings were opened up to African American Sailors.  Part of this shift was likely influenced by national recognition of two famous graduates of the mess attendant school at Norfolk, Dorie Miller and Leonard Harmon.  They were honored for their heroism at Pearl Harbor and Guadalcanal, respectively. Navy ships were later named after both of them.

The Mess Attendant School was an important part of naval history in Norfolk.  The slights received from the Seabag were indicative of some of the challenges that black sailors encountered during that era.  While the situation for African Americans gradually improved during World War II, there was still segregation and other problems, just as in most of American society.  As painful and shameful as some of this history appears, it is crucial that we remember and continue to tell these stories so that we do not forget.

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