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Vice Adm. Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., USN: Naval Officer, Trailblazer

Prepared by Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command 



On Jan. 31, 1962, then-Lt. Cmdr. Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. took command of destroyer escort USS Falgout (DE 324) becoming the first African-American to command a U.S. Navy combatant ship.  It was one of many firsts set by a man who was a trailblazer for minorities in the Navy, but was first and foremost an outstanding naval officer.  Below are some quotations and factoids about this important figure in naval history.


“Success in life is the result of several factors. My formula is simply education plus motivation plus perseverance. Education is paramount. Motivation : one must decide what he [or she] wants to do in life, how best to get there and to proceed relentlessly towards that goal. Perseverance:  the ability to steadfastly proceed to your goal despite all obstacles. It is the ability to overcome”

“One by-product of my success is a role that has been thrust upon me: to serve as an inspiration for others coming along.  I accept that role as graciously as I can, because there are people out there who feel I am sort of a role model.”
Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. and Paul Stillwell with Alma Gravely, Trailblazer, The U.S. Navy’s First Black Admiral, page 237

“Equal opportunity is something I think this country has got to practice. But I think at some point in time we’ve got to reach the place wherein equal opportunity is so routine that we don’t have to call it equal opportunity, that it is just matter of fact. I almost think we’ve called attention to equal opportunity, that we ought to be beyond that point.  I’m hoping that one these days we will get there. But when, I have no idea.”
Trailblazer, page 235


Mrs. Alma Gravely (The following quotes were taken from her telephone conversation with Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Historian, NHHC, Jan. 27, 2014)

“The most significant part of his legacy is the numerous notes and phone calls that I continue to receive expressing how much members of his crews and staffs appreciated him and the opportunity to serve with him.  . . . Since his death, I am learning how much he touched people across races and ranks.”

“Today’s Sailors need to know about Vice Admiral Gravely because he was just another person who kept his nose to the ground, did his job well, stayed focused, and ignored a lot . . . he wasn’t meek but he was humble,”

“We were breaking the color barrier during his career, however subtly, but did not realize how much.”

“After retiring, he especially enjoyed sharing sea stories with his shipmates.”

“He really liked a clean ship.”

Rear Adm. Mack Gaston, USN, Retired
(The following quotes were taken from his telephone conversation with Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Historian, NHHC, Jan. 28, 2014)

“He was just an absolute superstar all the time, as an admiral and as a person.”

“The first time that I met him I was an Ensign assigned to USS Buck (DD 761) that was tied up outboard to USS Taussig (DD 746).  I was determined to meet Captain Gravely, the only Black commanding officer in the Navy.  As I began to introduce myself he reached across and shook my hand.  That image is the lasting image of Gravely in my heart.”

“It wasn’t about him. It was about getting things done.”

“He was not angry. He took the situation at sea or at port and made the best that he could from it . . . It wasn’t about personality but about getting the job done.”

“He loved driving ships . . . he was great at driving ships and managing people.”

“If someone were to ask me to share something negative about Gravely, I would not have anything to share  . . . as a ship driver, husband or father.  He was a great man . . .he was not God . . .he was great man . . he changed our Navy for the better.”

“When I commanded my first ship, I had already learned from him that the people who run the ships are the Chief Petty Officers . . .He told me to remember that and to make sure that I meet with them  . . .  and often because the chiefs run the Navy . . . the officers make the rules.”

“He told me not to worry about anyone else . . .  do your job and do it well.”

“As a commanding officer and admiral he was enjoyed professionally and helped others advance . . . I never heard him say anything negative about anyone.”

Rear Adm. Andrew Winns (Quoted in Great Black War Fighters: Profiles in Service by Ben L. Walton)
“Gravely was an inspiration, not only to African-Americans but to all naval officers aspiring to be the best that they can be. To this day, I think he is still an inspiration to us all, just an absolutely wonderful officer, gentleman, and a Christian. He strived to mentor and promote excellence in all junior officers, without regard to race or gender.”





  • ·         Born: June 4, 1922 in Richmond, VA
  • ·         Enlisted into the U.S. Naval Reserves: Sept. 15, 1942
  • ·         Married: Alma Bernice Clark on Feb. 12, 1946
  • ·         Children: Robert, Tracy and David
  • ·         Retired:  Aug. 1, 1980 as the Director, Defense Communications Agency
  • ·         After retiring he remained active in his community and enjoyed traveling
  • ·         Died in Oct. 22, 2004 at the age of 82
  • ·         See 


    for his complete biography


  • First African-American to command
    • A Navy ship, USS Theodore E. Chandler (DD 707), a radar picket destroyer, Jan. 15 , 1961 to Nov. 21, 1961
    • A Navy warship, USS Falgout (DE 324), a radar picket destroyer, Jan. 31, 1962 (Although Theodore Chandler was a destroyer, Gravely’s command was spent almost entirely in the shipyard as the ship underwent a major overhaul, so many histories say Falgout was the first warship to be commanded by and African-American
    • A Navy warship under combat conditions, USS Taussig (DD 746), Jan. 22, 1966 (On June 1, Taussig took up station off the coast of Vietnam to provide naval gunfire support for operations ashore. From then until early October, Taussig alternated naval gunfire support with plane guard duty for Constellation on the southern SAR station off Vietnam).
    • A Navy major command warship, USS Jouett (DLG 29), May 22, 1970
    • A numbered Navy fleet, Third Fleet, Sept. 197


First of his race to achieve the rank of
Captain (Unrestricted Line)
Admiral in April 1971
Vice Admiral in July 26, 1976


* Wrote most of his own speeches

* Was a pigeon fancier, belonged to the pigeon clubs but did not fly his pigeons; his interest in these birds date from his childhood; Pigeons are depicted in the crest for USS Gravely (DDG 107)

* The Bureau of Naval Personnel considered him for command of the Navy’s first black Reserve Officer Training Corps at a historically black college, Prairie View A&M; Commander Gerald Thomas was assigned

* Enjoyed fishing and traveling with his wife especially after retirement

* Loved to entertain in his home

Regina T. Akers, Ph.D., Historian, NHHC
I am encouraged and inspired by the following:

  • ·         You can be proud of your achievements and humble at the same time.
  • ·         Pick your battles; sometimes it takes more courage and character to ignore something than it does to respond to it. 
  • ·         Do not let the limitations people assign to you limit you in any way. 
  • ·         Being a pioneer is not easy and can come at great costs and sacrifice. 
  • ·         Success is not given, it must be achieved. 
  • ·         You can respect someone who does not respect you. 
  • ·         Humility is not a weakness but a strength; it is too easy to get focused on yourself, to become arrogant, and to take your blessings for granted. 
  • ·         True success involves helping others along the way. 
  • ·         There are usually more persons supporting you than the number trying to hinder you. 
  • ·         Your real legacy is the difference you make in others’ lives. 
  • ·         Every job, be it at or below your skill set, is an opportunity to excel. 
  • ·         Expect trials and difficulties; they are part of life but do not stop there. Expect to conquer them or find a way to work around them. 
  • ·         Being the first a, b, c, or d may sound great but you really just want to be known as striving to be the best a, b, c, or d possible. 
  • ·         Racism exists but do not use it as an excuse for not trying to do something or to improve yourself.


“His life is a demonstration of what happens when someone can take advantage of opportunities and in doing so create opportunities for others. It is truly fitting that both a warship and a school are named for him, because they embody the values that he cherished throughout his life. I was so happy to take an active part in his long journey.” Alma Gravely’s Afterward in Trailblazer, 262

  • ·         National Naval Officers Association Tribute at Naval Air Station, Coronado, California, February 12, 2000
  • ·         Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. Elementary School in Haymarket, VA dedicated June 4, 2009; the school motto is VADM Gravely’s formula for success: Success=Education+Motivation+Preseverance
  • ·         USS Gravely (DDG 107), Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, christened May 16, 2009; see http://www.gravely.navy.mil for more information
  • ·         Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. Memorial Scholarship, Booze/Allen/Hamilton Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Scholarship for undergraduate and graduate study
  • ·         Admiral Gravely Boulevard, a street named after him in his hometown


Henry E. Dabbs, Black Brass, Black General and Admirals in the Armed Forces of the United States, 2nd Edition (Charlottesville, Virginia: Howell Press, 1997), 303-33

Desire D. Linson, Lt. Cmdr., USN, Thesis, “Vice Admiral Samuel Gravely: Leadership by Example,” Air Command and Staff College, Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, April 1998

Reminiscences of VADM Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., United States Navy, Retired, (Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute, 2003), Navy Department Library, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.

Interviewed with the Library of Congress’ National Visionary Leadership Project

Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. with Paul Stillwell, Trailblazer, The U.S. Navy’s First Black Admiral, Afterward by Alma B. Gravely (Annapolis, Maryland, Naval Institute Press, 2010)