RICHMOND, Va. -- The images are forever frozen in black and white but to Mrs. Alma Gravely, the memories of the man in uniform she loved remain in vivid color.
“I think he looks neat. I think he looks nice,” Alma said. “I think it’s a nice picture. I think he is a handsome guy. I think it was one of the reasons I married him."
Samuel Gravely Junior’s U.S. Navy career spanned three wars, four decades, and seven seas.
“I used to call him Sammy the Sailor. No one knew anything about that except Sammy the Sailor,” Alma said. “He just plain loved the Navy.”
On June 2, 1971, Alma’s sailor made his biggest splash.
Fifty years ago this month the Richmond native was promoted to admiral. Many seamen before him would hold the rank but this was the first time for an African American.
“I was happy for him because he did the best he could. I knew from whence he came,” Alma said.
Mrs. Gravely said while rising through the ranks, Admiral Gravely endured discrimination.
“The skipper got this message that they hear the ship has a negro officer aboard. He was to be informed that he could not come to the officer’s clubs. I think it hurt him and embarrassed him in front of the others,” Alma said.
Alma, 99, said rough waters only made Samuel more determined.
Gravely would sail into many more firsts:
- First African-American to command a combatant ship
- First African-American to be promoted to flag rank
- First African-American to command a naval fleet
In an interview with the Visionary Project about 20 years ago, Admiral Gravely did not boast about making history.
“Let's see there were eight ships in that squadron and I rode every one of them sometimes for a day sometimes for a week. There was a will to do it. And I didn’t plan to fail,” Admiral Gravely said. “I had to do that to be successful it just so happens that I was first and other people would have been successful if they’d been first. It is simple as that.”
“I think he was being a role model by being himself. More than anything else,” Alma said.
After 38 years, Admiral Gravely dropped anchor and retired in 1980.
“I believe there will always be new challenges and I fully intend to pursue each opportunity to the maximum extent feasible,” Admiral Gravely said. “To me, the Navy has afforded the best of all possible worlds and I will miss it.”
The United States Navy has since honored his legacy by christening the U.S.S. Samuel L. Gravely, Junior.
“I don’t think he would have thought he would have had a ship named after him,” Alma said.
On the 50th anniversary of Gravely’s promotion to admiral, the Navy League paid tribute to their fellow sailor.
Attending the ceremony at the Virginia War Memorial on this day Captain Corey Odom who is the skipper of the destroyer that bears the name of his idol.
“His primary goal was to be the best at what he did. It wasn’t about race it was being the best naval officer,” Captain Odom said.
Captain Odom said Admiral Gravely still inspired a half-century later.
“I will do anything for this nation. I will do anything for this crew. I will do anything for this Navy. I am beyond proud to be the first Black American to command the ship named after the first Black admiral. Team Gravely First to Conquer,” Captain Odom said.
Back in Haymarket, Alma Gravely’s home serves as a time capsule of her husband’s sterling career and life well-lived.
“They always say we’re standing on his shoulders. All of the time. All of the time,” Alma said. “He was very persistent.”
In 2004 Mrs. Gravely’s beloved husband and father of three suffered a stroke and died. He was 82 years old.
Along Eisenhower Drive in Section 66 at Arlington National Cemetery Gravely is forever at ease.
“That is what he did. He kept going and going and going,” Alma said.
The mariner may no longer be sailing the world’s oceans, but Admiral Samuel Lee Gravely, Junior left a lasting wake for others to follow.
“The old saying goes ‘A sailor belongs on ships and ships belong at sea’ has always been my hallmark and matched my philosophy perfectly.”
Norfolk is The U.S.S. Samuel L. Gravely’s homeport.
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