The forthcoming Naval Institute oral history of the U.S. Navy’s first African-American four-star admiral covers his entire career. In 1961, J. Paul Reason was a U.S. Naval Academy plebe and obliged to take lessons to prepare for social mixer dances that midshipmen called “tea fights.” This is an edited excerpt from an interview he did with Dr. Robert Schneller and Paul Stillwell on 24 February 2000.
If you were a plebe, you didn’t know how to dance—by definition. So you had to learn to dance before you could go to a “tea fight.” The dance lessons were held under the auspices of Mrs. Emmy Marshall, the Academy’s social director. When my name came up on the company list, I marched to Memorial Hall. The dance lesson partners were some of the same young ladies that were going to be at the “tea fights.” Most of them were high school girls from Washington. Many were the daughters of embassy personnel and members of Congress.
Well, we marched in, and everybody was lined up. Mrs. Marshall explained to us, “This is going to be an hour’s dance lesson, and music is provided by Navy musicians.” She was walking up and down, and she was looking, and she walked past me about three times. About the fourth time, she stopped and said, “One moment, please.” Then she walked very calmly to the big broad staircase of Memorial Hall. Then you could hear the sound of rushing feet going down the steps.
She ran to the main office, and the only person there was the midshipman officer of the watch. So she talked to him; I guess it must have been five or ten minutes. I figured I had something to do with her departure. She had this midshipman come up to Memorial Hall. He stood at the door, had his hat on, and said, “Midshipman Reason.”
“Would you join me, please?” When I did, he said, “You may return to your room.”
I said, “No, sir. I’m detailed to dance lessons. If I go back, I’m going to get put on report.”
“I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“How are you going to do that, sir? Are you going to come back with me? I was sent here by my squad leader and told I had to go to dance lessons. Are you going to take me back? Are you going to give me a chit?”
“Go back to your company area!”
“Yes, sir. I’ll go back and report to my company commander that the midshipman officer of the watch, Midshipman First Class [and I knew his name] told me not to go to dance lessons.”
“Yes, that’ll do it.”
So I went back, and I didn’t say anything. About a day later, my company officer called me in, and he said, “I understand there was a problem at dance lessons on Sunday.”
I said, “I didn’t have a problem. I think Mrs. Marshall had a problem.”
“Have you told anyone about this?”
“Yes, I mentioned it in a letter I wrote last night to my girlfriend.” I was just telling the truth.
He said, “Where does she live?”
“Do you think she could come down to dance lessons next Sunday and be your partner?”
I said, “Since I haven’t seen her in months, I’m sure she can come down.”
Dianne Fowler was then invited by Mrs. Marshall to come to dance lessons every time my name came up on the list. That continued into the “tea fight” season. She got to know Mrs. Marshall quite well, and we liked her a lot. Mrs. Marshall warmed to us and was embarrassed because she didn’t have a ready solution to the problem initially. Fortunately, I was the first one of the four black midshipmen whose names came up for dance lessons.
It was apparently unacceptable for me to have a white dance partner, and I do believe that prior to 1961, no names of black midshipmen came up on the dance school list. They were probably excluded. I remember discussing this with another black midshipman, Holger Ericsson, and he said, “I’ve never known anything about dance class.” You never know how deliberate the exclusion was. But I think this was the first time, certainly in Mrs. Marshall’s experience, where a black midshipman showed up for dance class.
A lot of my classmates who got to know Dianne said, “You know, this is really quite unfair. Here I’m engaged to be married in four years, just like you, and my girlfriend lives right out here in Annapolis. I can’t even see her on the weekends.” Because you couldn’t date as a plebe; you couldn’t hold hands. So they were getting rather jealous. For dance classes and “tea fights” I was able to spend an hour for the classes and two or three hours for the “tea fights,” dancing with the lady I loved.
Dianne and Paul Reason have been married since June 1965, shortly after he graduated from the Naval Academy.