At the close of Black History Month, Sailors in leadership positions at Recruit Training Command (RTC) reflected on February’s month long celebration and what it means for them being stationed at the Navy’s only boot camp.
While the first African Americans reported to Great Lakes in 1942, they were segregated from the rest of recruits. It was not until 1944 when some of the African American recruits were integrated with the rest of Great Lakes as part of a pilot program. By mid-1945, all recruits were integrated.
Today, on the night of their arrival to RTC, recruits enter the Golden Thirteen in-processing building, named after the first 13 African American officers in the U.S. Navy, 12 of whom were commissioned, and another who made warrant officer during World War II.
As an immigrant from Spanish Town, Jamaica, who became a U.S. citizen, Senior Chief Damage Controlman Andrae Sutherland, leading chief petty officer of the USS Constitution recruit barracks and a command diversity team leader, said he felt it was his duty to give back to the country by joining the greatest Navy in the world. Sutherland says celebrating Black History Month at RTC has been an awesome experience, knowing that 79 years ago Great Lakes started receiving the first African Americans.
“Walking inside the Golden Thirteen and seeing the prominently displayed first 13 African American [naval officers] is always a reminder that we live under the Constitution,” Sutherland said. “Also, it reminds me that no matter what you want to become in the United States Navy, you can become anything with hard work and dedication and that is what I’ve been doing for almost 23 years.”
Sutherland knew he was destined to mold, mentor and guide Sailors and young adults through this life.
“Before I joined the Navy, I was always involved with some sort of summer program that engages young adults in the communities on how to be a leader in society,” he said. “After I joined the Navy, I was surrounded by so many young adults and it felt right for me, so immediately I started mentoring Sailors.
This is Sutherland’s second tour of duty at RTC, having first served here 2009-2013, when he trained 15 divisions in boot camp. The experience made such a lasting impression on him he decided to return.
“I believe strongly that we have the perfect opportunity to make the biggest impact on these Sailors for life,” Sutherland said. “I recently had one from a division back in 2013 send me a message stating that I made him who he is today. He is currently a Boston firefighter and he wanted to send me a shirt for the leadership and time I put in him to make better for life.”
Lt. Ohmahr Fleming, the division officer for the USS Indianapolis combat training pool, takes the opportunity to keep others informed.
“Black History Month means a lot as I can provide this time to educate others,” Fleming said. “While history is changing every day, we still have to remember the great pioneers and trailblazers that came before us so the young generation can expand our future.”
Fleming also uses his leadership position to influence the new recruits.
“I walked in through the same doors of the Golden Thirteen 25 years ago, the same door these new recruits walk through upon their arrival today,” he said. “Giving them a vision of hope and accomplishment goes a long way. I motivate them to follow their dreams and let them know I believe in them to become a United States Sailor.”
Electrician’s Mate 1st Class Courtney Harris, an instructor for Recruit Division Commander (RDC) “C” School, recognizes the significance of his position at RTC.
“It’s important to me to show recruits the importance of inclusion and diversity in the fleet, which in my opinion, is what makes us the most powerful Navy in the world,” said Harris. “A lot of minorities and people of color lack a visual representation of their ethnicity in high positions, so it’s an honor to be a representation of what they could accomplish in their careers.”
On her second tour at RTC, Master Chief Electronics Technician Tamika Williams, RTC’s fleet master chief for Pacific Fleet, was first stationed here from 2005-2008. During that time, RTC was led by then Capt. Annie Andrews, who later promoted to Read Adm., and Command Master Chief April Beldo.
“I was here as a first-class petty officer RDC looking up to those two black female leaders whom I identified with and that I can see myself in,” said Williams, of St. Louis, Missouri. “I saw that type of female role model and mentorship during my time here, which was awesome.”
Once a Battle Stations facilitator, Williams recalls Beldo’s influence on her during the 2007 commissioning of USS Trayer (BST-21), the state-of-the-art 210-foot Arleigh Burke-class destroyer simulator where Battle Stations takes place as the culmination of all training recruits received during boot camp.
“My name is actually on a bulkhead in one of the spaces of BST-21 and she was there at the commissioning ceremony where she gave everyone her RTC CMC (challenge) coin — which I keep to this day — because of our performance and how great we were in commissioning the Trayer,” Williams said.
Williams said she understands her role as a senior leader and as a black female because she has seen it in Beldo and Andrews.
“I’ve seen it through them when they were here and how it felt for me, so I try to redo that experience to others, both staff and recruits, even my peers and other chiefs,” she said. “To be that role model that they were to me and how it made me feel, we all can make change and care about each other’s experiences and (let recruits know) that there’s a senior person who cares about them.”
As RTC’s only woman master chief, as well as being a black woman, Williams knows she has big shoes to fill as senior leadership.
“I’m able to do it because I saw them do it. I’ve seen it before and that’s what I try (to emulate) as a role model to let other people see me and say, ‘Hey look at this, she’s a female and black female master chief,’” said Williams. “I walk around the streets so those recruits can see that and recognize that and know that they can probably obtain this level of leadership or position in the Navy. Every interaction I do here at the command, both on the streets and in the barracks, is (emulating) Capt. Andrews and Command Master Chief April Beldo in one.”
Williams states she is holding it down until someone else can come after her as she and the others continue to help forge a path for future RDCs and leaders at RTC just as the Golden Thirteen did nearly seven decades earlier.
“The legacy that the first 13 African American officers left is unmatched and remarkable in many ways because they faced numerous unfair treatments, but they fought and kept pushing until they achieved what they set out to accomplish,” said Sutherland. “I feel like I’m walking in their footsteps by carrying the mantle they left for me and I’m forever grateful.”
Boot camp is approximately eight weeks and all enlistees into the U.S. Navy begin their careers at the command. Training includes physical fitness, seamanship, firearms, firefighting and shipboard damage control along with lessons in Navy heritage and core values, teamwork and discipline. More than 40,000 recruits train annually at the Navy’s only bootcamp.
For more news from Recruit Training Command, visit www.navy.mil/local/rtc
Recruit Training Command