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Sun, 04.03.1927

Wesley Brown, Naval Engineer born

Wesley A. Brown

*Wesley Brown was born on this date in 1927. He was a Black soldier, engineer and educator.

Born in Baltimore, MD, Wesley Anthony Brown grew up in Washington DC, where his father delivered groceries and his mother worked in a dry cleaning shop.  Brown’s great-grandparents were slaves. He was a 1944 Dunbar High School graduate and served in the Army reserves as a teenager. Brown grew up in a row house on Q Street near Logan Circle. He was the first Black graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis and served 20 years in the Navy as a civil engineer. He helped design a water treatment facility in Cuba, roads across Liberia, an air station in the Philippines and a nuclear plant in Antarctica.

Regarding Annapolis, since it’s founding in 1845. Five other Black midshipmen had come before him; none had graduated. Most were forced to resign from the academy because of a hostile racial climate.  According to the 2005 book “Breaking the Color Barrier” by naval historian Robert J. Schneller Jr., Cmdr. Brown was the victim of a hazing campaign orchestrated by Southern upperclassmen who sought his dismissal. Upon enrollment in 1945, he endured racial epithets and ostracism from his classmates. A group of upperclassmen gave him so many demerits during his first term mostly for fabricated infractions or petty offenses that he was threatened with expulsion.

Cmdr. Brown once said in a later interview “I get asked that question often, ‘Did you ever think about quitting?’ ” “And I say, ‘Every single day.’ ” “When I came to the academy I learned that there were all kinds of prejudices against Jews, Catholics, even the Irish,” Cmdr. Brown said in a 2005 with the Baltimore Sun. “And I looked around and thought that these prejudices were instilled in them by their families, and they could not be blamed for feeling the way they did.” Eventually, sympathetic upperclassmen came to his aide and helped guide Cmdr. Brown’s development as a future naval officer. Among them was his track teammate, a Georgia peanut farmer’s son named Jimmy Carter.

On June 3, 1949, Cmdr. Brown was commissioned as a Navy officer, graduating 370th out of his class of nearly 800.  Many newspapers covered his graduation as a landmark achievement in military history. Cmdr. Brown saw it differently. “I feel it is unfortunate the American people have not matured enough to accept and individual on the basis of his ability and not regard a person as an oddity because of his color,” Cmdr. Brown told the New York Times in 1949. “My class standing shows that around here I am an average ‘Joe.’ ”

Cmdr. Brown retired from the Navy in 1969. To date, more than 1,700 Black students have graduated from the Naval Academy, including Navy admirals, Marine Corps generals, basketball star David Robinson and NASA administrator Charles F. Bolden. From 1976 to 1988, he was the facilities planner for Howard University.

In 2008, the Naval Academy dedicated its $50 million indoor track facility in Cmdr. Brown’s honor.  At his home, Cmdr. Brown kept a prized letter from Carter, his former track teammate. “I ran with you,” the 39th president wrote to Cmdr. Brown, but “you were better.” Wesley Brown died on May 22, 2012.  His first marriage, to the former Jean Alston, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 49 years, Crystal Malone Brown of Silver Spring; four children from his first marriage, Wiletta West of Philadelphia, Carol Jackson of Long Beach, Calif., Wesley A. Brown Jr. of Fall River, Mass., and Gary Brown of Coral Gables, Fla.; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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