In the decades leading to World War II, the number of African-Americans in the Coast Guard actually decreased because of a culture of discrimination against blacks. Despite their decline in overall numbers, African-Americans still experienced a number of advances prior to the war. Established as an all-black facility in 1880, North Carolina’s Pea Island Lifesaving Station stood as a symbol of African-American service in the predominantly white Coast Guard. In addition, the African-American Berry family had more than 20 members serve in the Coast Guard, beginning with the U.S. Lifesaving Service in 1897. And U.S. Lighthouse Service lightships experienced a greater degree of integration than ever before, with some lightships employing more than 50 percent minority crew members.
Change Hastened by Conflict
After making early moves toward racial equality, the Coast Guard lowered barriers to blacks in both the enlisted and officer ranks during World War II.African-Americans comprise the longest-serving minority group in the 225-year history of the U.S. Coast Guard and its predecessor services. However, after decades of incremental increases in African-American participation, it took an event of monumental proportions—World War II—to speed up the desegregation of the service.
By William H. Thiesen