Michigan highway engineer mapped the way to equality as 1st African-American commissioned naval officer

An article in 1943 announcing that Ensign Joseph Jenkins, the first African-American naval officer, spoke to more than 500 people of the National Alliance of Postal Employees. U.S. Coast Guard photo

An article published in 1943 announcing that Ensign Joseph Jenkins, the first African-American naval officer, spoke to more than 500 people of the National Alliance of Postal Employees encouraging them to do thier part for the war effort.
U.S. Coast Guard photo

African-American History Month, celebrated in the U.S. every February since 1976, is an annual observance for the remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African-Americans. Similar observances, instead titled Black History Month, are celebrated in February in Canada and in October in the United Kingdom.

The Coast Guard honors those who have faced adversity and overcome not just this month, but every month as Coast Guardsmen face peril in emergency situations every day keeping our waters safe.

Although, African-Americans have served in the U.S. armed services since the Revolutionary War, none had been allowed to rise to the level of a naval officer until 1943.

Detroit-native Joseph Charles Jenkins has the distinction of being the Coast Guard’s first recognized African-American officer and the nation’s first commissioned African-American naval officer.

Born in 1914, Jenkins attended the University of Michigan, where he was the only African-American in the Engineering Department at the time. While there, Jenkins was also a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first African-American Greek-letter fraternity.

After graduation, Jenkins became a highway design engineer for the state of Michigan, overseeing the construction of many Michigan highways.

While working, Jenkins earned a graduate business administration degree from Wayne State University.

In the late 1930s, with the U.S. facing another world war, Jenkins helped organize what would become the 1279th Combat Engineer Battalion of the Michigan National Guard, which as the law stated at the time was a racially segregated unit.

In 1942, at 28 years old, Jenkins joined the Coast Guard as a boatswain’s mate 1st class but was quickly advanced to chief petty officer. His first assignment was to recruit other African-Americans in Michigan for the armed forces.

By April 1943, Jenkins completed Reserve Officer’s Training Course at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and received an officer’s commission making him the first African-American naval officer in U.S. history.

Jenkins was one of three African-American officers to serve aboard the USS Sea Cloud, a weather patrol ship homeported in Boston and also the first racially integrated naval ship.

Ensigns Joseph Jenkins and Harvey Russell Jr. pose for a photo aboard the deck of the USS Sea Cloud, the first intergrated naval vessel, during World War II. Jenkins and Russell were the first two naval officers in the Coast Guard. U.S. Coast Guard photo

Ensigns Joseph Jenkins and Harvey Russell Jr. pose for a photo aboard the deck of the USS Sea Cloud, the first intergrated naval vessel, during World War II.
Jenkins and Russell were the first two African-American naval officers in the Coast Guard.
U.S. Coast Guard photo

He served as the ship’s navigation officer and soon earned a promotion to lieutenant junior grade.

The crew of the Sea Cloud not only conducted scientific missions but also patrolled the North Atlantic on convoy duty and encountered combat, sinking a German submarine.

“As an African-American in today’s Coast Guard, I have no personal knowledge of the things Jenkins had to endure because of the sacrifices he made paving the way for us,” said Lt. Cmdr. Byron Hayes, the chief of the Coast Guard 9th District Planning and Contingency Preparedness Branch.

“Jenkins is a hero — not only for African-Americans in the military, but for anyone who fits into a minority role.”

After the success of integration aboard the Sea Cloud, several other ships integrated and many land units were close to follow.

In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which integrated the military and mandated equality of treatment and opportunity.

“The way African-Americans were treated in the military before the 1940s changed due to the success Jenkins had in the Coast Guard,” said Hayes.

In 1945, Jenkins left active duty in the Coast Guard and returned home to Michigan.

There, he served in the African-American Engineering Unit of the Michigan National Guard until 1947, earning the rank of captain.

Jenkins continued his career for the Michigan State Highway Department and was the assistant director of the Metropolitan Detroit area when he died in 1959.

Jenkins was survived by his wife, Hertha, and three children.

Jenkins is celebrated for not only leading the way for minorities in the military as the first African-American naval officer but as person who did not yield in the face of adversity.

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