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‘He truly was the first to conquer’: Ceremony honors 50th anniversary of Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., first African American promoted to Navy Admiral

Updated: Jun. 2, 2021 at 6:38 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Governor Ralph Northam declared June 2 “Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. Day” in honor of the 50th anniversary of his promotion to Admiral, according to the Richmond Virginia Council Navy League.

Gravely, a Richmond native, was the first African American admiral in the United States Navy. He rose from the rank of Seaman to Vice Admiral and was the first African American to command a US Navy warship.

A quote by the former Fulton Hill resident is engraved on the wall inside the Paul and Phyllis Galanti Education Center at the Virginia War Memorial.

“He shares this hall with many other famous Virginians who have been a great part of our rich history,” said Rob Paylor, with the Virginia War Memorial.

“He truly was the first to conquer,” said Commander Corey Odom, the current Commanding Officer of the USS Gravely (DDG-107).

Born in Richmond in 1922, Gravely joined the Navy during WWII - letting little stand in his path.

“Overcoming prejudice Jim Crow laws, a segregated Navy by sheer talent and determination,” said Jay Fiedler, President of the Richmond Navy League Council.

Over the course of his 38-year career, Gravely rose through the ranks, accomplishing many firsts.

  • The first African American to command a U.S. Navy warship (CHANDLER DD 717)
  • The first African American to command an American warship under combat conditions (TAUSSIG DD 746)
  • The first African American to command a major naval warship (JOUETT CG 29)

“The first African American to rise to the rank of Vice Admiral, and the first African American to command a [U.S. Navy] fleet,” Odom said.

But for several women in attendance for Wednesday’s ceremony, he was so much more.

“He was a great military person,” said Tracey Gravely, his daughter. “He had lots of firsts, but he was also a great father, a great uncle, a great neighbor.”

Three generations gathered at the Virginia War Memorial on the 50th Anniversary of Gravely’s rise to the highest rank in the Navy.

“I’m elated,” said Laurette Cain Johnson Turner, Gravely’s niece.

Now, a proclamation by Governor Ralph Northam making sure Gravely is recognized across the Commonwealth.

It is also an honor seen by officers serving aboard the Naval ship that bears his name.

“When asked about his success, Admiral Gravely said there’s a recipe for it,” Odom said. “He said success equaled perseverance, education and motivation.”

Words not only these officers live by, but his family hopes men, women and our youth will strive for.

“He understood that education is life-long,” Turner said. “I got a master of public administration at the age of 63 back in 2013, I believe it was because he said education is paramount.”

Family and advocates wanting to educate the community about his accomplishments, hoping to one day have a statue erected somewhere in Richmond. Currently, the only reminder within city limits is a street name.

“If anywhere he should be recognized more than other places, such as the west coast or worldwide, he should be recognized here first,” said James Chambliss, who is working to create a memorial for Gravely.

After Gravely retired from the Navy, he kept busy working with the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, according to Naval History and Heritage Command.

Gravely died at the age of 82 after suffering a stroke.

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