Six years ago, Wesley Brown suffered a massive heart attack at his home in Washington D.C.
Like he was told in 1945 of his little-to-no chance of graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, doctors said he had a slim likelihood of surviving. In both cases, though, he had too much to live for — ambitions that ironically were interrelated. Enduring the former ended up growing his legacy. Surviving the latter allowed him to ultimately see the edifice that will preserve his legacy for many years to come.
Brown, a retired navy lieutenant commander, endured the taunts and the myriad roadblocks to become the first Black person to graduate from the Naval Academy in 1949. And he carried on to when the academy’s new $50 million sports complex was named after him in honor of that trailblazing feat earlier this month.
“I had a massive heart attack a couple of months after I was notified of this plan,” says Brown, referring to six years ago. “So I was hoping that I wouldn’t have another heart attack and miss the ceremony. It certainly felt good to know that I had survived because very, very few people get buildings named for them while they are still alive.”
The honorary banquet on May 9 and the two-hour dedication ceremony to officially open the Wesley A. Brown Field House the following day, both at the field house on the bank of the Severn River in Annapolis, Md., was the end of “a long waiting period,” Brown says.
At the banquet, more than 500 people showed up to honor Brown, including Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., the keynote speaker. The next morning about 1,800 people came to the dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony, including his four children, five of his seven grandchildren, and a host of aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, godmothers, godchildren, and hundreds of friends. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both spoke at the event.
“The Navy took what was really a historic building and a unique opportunity to recognize a historic and unique individual — that’s a national treasure,” says Joe Rubino, the director of academy’s diversity office.
Five Black midshipmen had already tried to break the color barrier by the time Brown enrolled in 1945. All five had failed. However, Brown says he was being driven by the old saying: “If you really have a goal and you put your mind to it and you don’t let anything deter you from that goal, then of course you should be able to make it.”
The constant taunts did not deter him. The absence of a roommate for his four years did not stop him. The midshipmen who refused to sit next to him in the dining hall did not discourage him. The upperclassmen who piled demerits on him for minor infractions could not break him. The eviction campaign couldn’t remove him.
In 1949, he did make it — a year after President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order desegregating the military.
“The cliché is that he broke the color barrier, but I think he did so much more than that,” Rubino says. “He almost spent those four years alone. His character and perseverance got him through those four years and it opened the doors to all that followed.”
Brown was born in Baltimore in April 3, 1927, and raised in Washington, D.C. He attended Howard University and then was nominated for admission and appointed to the naval academy by New York’s famous Black Congressman at the time, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., officially enrolling on June 30, 1945.
While breaking color barriers at the Naval Academy, he was also burning up the cross-country track with former President Jimmy Carter. He graduated in the top half of his class on June 3, 1949, and went into the Navy’s civil engineer corps for 20 years.
More than 1,500 Blacks have now graduated from the academy, including former basketball star David Robinson and talk show host Montel Williams. These days, about 4 percent of the academy’s more than 4,000 midshipmen are Black.
The dedication of the field house is part of a larger effort to increase Black enrollment.
“Navy-wide there are tremendous efforts going on for outreach and diversity,” Rubino says. “The naming of the Wesley Brown field house is a very visible, tangible manifestation of that.”
The 140-square-foot field house, home to the academy’s cross country and track teams and women’s lacrosse team, contains a full-size track field and a retractable artificial 76,000-square-foot turf football field that floats on a bed of air blown out by fans in the floor. It also has a mammoth weight room, and several other state-of-the-art amenities. Maybe the most special item in the facility is the portrait of Brown when he graduated by famous artist Simmie Knox that hangs in the field house’s entryway.
“I hope that when young men and women of color, and all cadets or midshipmen at the Naval academy, when they walk through those doors and when they may have some difficult and trying times, then they can see that name and say, ‘I know it’s tough, but here is a person who persevered when times were even tougher,’” says C.J. Jordan, director of communications for Brown’s newly established foundation. “‘So if he can make it, then I surely can.’”
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