In April of 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play in the major leagues in the modern era. Five years earlier, though, another Robinson quietly broke a different color barrier and his story is much less well known.
In June of 1942, the U.S. had entered World War II. The Navy needed doctors, and came up with a plan to fill their ranks. Recruiters hit medical school campuses around the country and offered students a deal: sign up with us, and we'll make you an officer.
"The recruiter probably never even looked at individuals," said Michael Lee Lanning, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, and author of The African-American Soldier, from Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell. "What he actually probably thought was, 'There wouldn't be a black guy at Harvard. Why should I even look at that?'"
But Bernard Robinson was at Harvard. An African-American man from Chicago, but raised in Boston, he’d entered medical school after graduating with honors from Boston College.
At the time, there were black enlisted men in the Navy, but they were in segregated units. Most either carried artillery, or were “mess men” — cooking food, washing dishes, and shining shoes. And if they did distinguish themselves in battle — like at Pearl Harbor for example?
"A black mess man, Dory Miller, who ran up from the mess, manned a machine gun and shot down a couple of Japanese planes," Lanning said. "He received the first medal for a black man in the war. Then he went back to being a mess man."
Lanning says the evidence suggests that Robinson’s recruitment was something of an accident — and that at least some Navy brass were not happy about it.
"There’s some comments in the Washington files that talk about 'this boy.'” he said. “'Will this boy make it through school?' and, 'Will we have to commission him?'”
He did make it through school. And on June 18, 1942, Robinson was officially commissioned as an ensign in the U.S. Navy Reserve.
He is largely unknown today, in part, because just before he was called up from the reserve, the Navy took an even bolder step toward integration. They selected 13 highly educated black men, send them to school in Chicago, and once they were finished their training, they were commissioned as ensigns in the Navy.
Known as the Golden Thirteen, the men reported for active duty a just a few months before Robinson. None of the Golden Thirteen stayed in the service beyond the war, but the commission changed Robinson’s life —he stuck around the military and ended up in the Veterans Administration.
During his career in the VA hospitals system, Robinson served as a radiologist, chief of radiology and chief of staff. He died suddenly in 1972 at age 54.
In 1948 President Truman officially integrated the entire military, and by the Vietnam War, Lanning says that military units were truly integrated — not just in name — but in practice, too.
African-American naval officers have commanded battleships and earned the rank of four-star admiral. And the Navy’s current deputy chief of naval operations is not only African-American, but also a woman.
Lanning says that those strides being made today are thanks in no small part to Robinson, and the Golden Thirteen.
"It opened doors that have stayed open," he said. "They placed the stone of a huge wall that has been built."
Bernard Robinson, Harvard-trained doctor, and the first black man to be commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy – 72 years ago this week.