|As Black History Month continues, Intrepid examines the experiences of black sailors in the 1950s and 1960s.
When Intrepid was recommissioned in 1954, she rejoined a fleet that had recently changed its policies toward black sailors. Six years earlier, President Harry Truman had signed Executive Order 9981, which stated that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin."
Executive Order 9981 offered the promise of greater opportunity for black servicemen and women, but change was slow to come in the Navy. By 1962, only 5% of the Navy was black – about half the percentage of African Americans in the general population and less than half of the percentage of black soldiers in the Army. The Navy’s reliance on qualification tests, lack of minority recruiting efforts, and long history of racism all contributed to the Navy’s relatively low rate of black enlistees.
Comparing Intrepid's World War II cruise book with those of the 1950s and early 1960s hints at changes in Navy policies toward black sailors. The World War II cruise book shows virtually all of the ship's black sailors concentrated in one occupation: steward. Later books show black sailors in a range of other divisions, tackling a variety of jobs throughout the ship. Yet the cruise books also show how far the Navy needed to go. Most divisions had only one or two black sailors, an improvement over World War II but nowhere near representative of population at large. And most of Intrepid's stewards still were black.
An Intrepid sailor refuels an aircraft in 1959.
The Intrepid Museum is committed to telling the stories of all of its crew members – black and white. One such sailor was Otha Lewis, who worked in the ship's engine room in the early from 1961–63. Lewis went on to have a 20-year career in the Navy. His uniforms have just become part of our permanent collection, where they will improve our ability to interpret the history of the all of the men who served aboard Intrepid. We look forward to sharing more of these stories with our visitors.
Intrepid’s M Division, 1961–62. Otha Lewis is in the 5th row, second from left.