Thursday, February 18, 2021

Before Chief Turpin: Other Early African American Chief Petty Officers


Chief Gunner's Mate John Turpin seen in the early 1920s. (Puget Sound Navy Museum)

Alexander Bright & Elijah Palmer
HRNM Educator and Deputy Director of Education

Chief Petty Officer John Henry Turpin has long been rightfully recognized as one of the most important African American Chief Petty Officers (CPOs) in American history. Among the first Black men to achieve such rank while serving aboard the cruiser USS Marblehead (CL 12) in 1917, during World War II he proudly wore his uniform again while recruiting young African Americans for the U.S. Navy. With a long career in the Navy and with prior fame having survived two terrible shipboard disasters (USS Maine in 1898 and USS Bennington in 1905) he received widespread recognition and his legacy was well established. However, due to Turpin’s popularity and readily accessible sources, other early African American CPOs have largely been overlooked. We recently discovered the names of three other African American Chief Petty Officers who made rank before Turpin: Chief Carpenter’s Mate Isaac A. Miller, Chief Gunner’s Mate John C. Jordan, and Chief Water Tender Frank E. Smith. Let’s take a closer look at each of their places in naval history.

USS Columbia (CL 12) seen (left) at Brooklyn Navy Yard in March 1903. The auxiliary cruiser USS Buffalo is seen in the foreground right. (Brooklyn Museum Collection)

Isaac Miller's story picks up on August 4th, 1903, the day he was promoted to Chief Carpenter’s Mate aboard USS Columbia (C 12) by Captain Snow, commanding officer of the receiving ship. After Navy leadership recognized Miller for his contributions aboard Columbia, while it docked at the Brooklyn Naval Yard, Captain Snow promoted the sailor to the rank of Chief Carpenter’s Mate, in charge of maintaining the ship’s condition. Little is known of Isaac Miller before this. He is only identified as having a long, respected career in the Navy as he worked his way up the ranks. Immediately following his promotion, disagreements erupted aboard Columbia. On August 5th, eight white chief petty officers publicly refused to eat with Miller in the chief’s mess. When asked why, one of the sailors did not hesitate to use a racial slur to justify their reasoning and decry it “an outrage [the Navy] should try to force [African Americans] in on us.” 
“Color Line is Now Drawn in the Navy,” Indianapolis News (August 7, 1903)

Chief's mess aboard USS Newark (C 1) in the 1890s. (Library of Congress

Miller’s promotion and the incidents on August 5th immediately drew the attention of both the Navy and the media. On the same day Chief Miller received his promotion, the New York Herald ran an article “Navy Tired of Negroes” that stated the explicit intent of some in the Navy to rid the service of African American sailors – “Naval officers believe the efficiency of the service will be increased if no more negroes are enlisted.”
(Left) New York Herald article on August 4, 1903 on Navy attitudes towards African American sailors, and (right) an editorial echoing this sentiment that was published directly below the August 7 article related to Chief Miller in the New York Herald

In response to the editorial piece, and perhaps in response to the prior day’s incidents involving Miller, another Chief Petty Officer wrote in agreement that the Navy should seek the end of black enlistments into service. Despite the outpouring of hatred toward Chief Miller, he remained calm and collected, refusing to engage with the racist rhetoric. Captain Snow reportedly remained supportive of Chief Miller as well, having said that, “Miller’s rights would be protected as the navy makes no distinction as to color.” Some 14 years before Turpin, Miller had achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer.

Not long after Miller’s promotion, another black sailor, John C. Jordan, was promoted to the rank of Chief Petty Officer. Jordan’s career in the Navy has been much better preserved. Enlisting in 1887, he became Gunner’s Mate 2nd class by 1898. That year he was serving aboard USS Olympia (C 6), Commodore George Dewey’s flagship for the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War. Jordan was the port gun captain in Olympia’s forward 8-inch turret and earned the reputation of being one of the best gunners under Dewey’s command.

USS Olympia (C 6) and the rest of Dewey's fleet firing at Battle of Manila Bay (Library of Congress)

Jordan featured in a June 10, 1899 article from The Evening Star ( 

By 1900, he had reached Gunner’s Mate First Class and served aboard USS Iowa (BB 4) before finally being stationed at the U.S. Naval Academy to help train new officers. Sometime in early 1905, Jordan received his promotion to Chief Gunner’s Mate and seemingly met little resistance. While some high-ranking officials endeavored to end the advancement of African Americans in the Navy, sometimes stating the reason for denial could “be found in the applicant’s descriptive list” (e.g. race), shipboard officers could not ignore Jordan’s knowledge and prowess. Unfortunately, few details are known about Jordan’s promotions and whether or not they received public attention. Ultimately, however, Jordan’s attainment of the rank of Chief Gunner’s Mate in 1905 puts him alongside Chief Miller as one of the first African Americans to do so, and helped pave the way in the Gunner's Mate rating for Turpin to follow later.

Chief Jordan seen in his Chief Petty Officer uniform, likely near his retirement in 1916. (The Crisis, Vol. 17, Issue 6 (October 1917))
Engine fireroom aboard USS Brooklyn (C 3) in 1896. Note the African American sailor in the background. (Library of Congress)

Finally, in 1915, only two years before Turpin’s promotion, Frank E. Smith became Chief Water Tender as he retired. Notably, Smith was also a Medal of Honor recipient. Born in 1864, Smith joined the Navy in 1884 and the details of his career are unknown until 1900 when he was serving aboard USS Newark (C 1) as part of the Asiastic Squadron. According to his Medal of Honor citation, Smith was part of the Seymour relief expedition during the Boxer Rebellion and “distinguished himself by meritorious conduct” across four days of combat in June 1900. 

Members of the Seymour Expedition are seen in China in 1900. The American contingent is in the background. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Despite the medal, and clear recognition of his excellence in his rating, Smith faced obstacles to achieve his aspirations of making Chief Water Tender. At one point Smith wrote to his commander, “It has been the height of my ambition to attain the rank of Chief Water Tender and have taken two exams, heretofore, yet could not attain my object – not for lack of ability, but suitability.” At the end of his service Smith did receive the promotion he had hoped for and retired as Chief Water Tender Smith.

The lives of Chiefs Isaac Miller, John Jordan, and Frank Smith tell us a new story of integration in the U.S. Navy. Nearly fifteen years before John Turpin made Chief Gunner’s Mate, these three men demonstrated how racial barriers were broken much earlier than his timeline suggests. Amid some of the most intense periods of racial violence in the United States at the start of the 20th century, the rise of these three men to the rank of chief represent the best of the Navy’s ability to recognize skill above skin color. Ultimately, although Chief John Henry Turpin has been rightfully recognized as a pioneer in race relations within the U.S. Navy, it is important we remain vigilant to other stories that might have been forgotten. The addition of the stories of Chiefs Miller, Jordan, and Smith to the historiography serve to deepen our knowledge about the history of race relations in the U.S. Navy. 

Further Reading/Sources

“Color Line is Now Drawn in the Navy,” Indianapolis News (August 7, 1903)

"Navy Tired of Negroes," New York Herald (August 4, 1903)

“Letter to the Editor,” New York Herald (August 7, 1903)

"Color Line Drawn in the Navy Yard," New York Herald (August 7, 1903)

“Color Line in the Navy,” Washington Post (August 7, 1903)

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