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Midshipmen's Club Aids Race Relations, Teaches Black Culture

February 05, 1989|ROCHELLE RILEY | The Washington Post

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Midshipman 1st Class John Duvall III recalled the time his roommate asked him why he wore a do-rag to bed at night.

"I explained to him that black men use it, that you can tie it up and it holds your hair down, keeps the ends down," Duvall said of his old cloth headwrap. Duvall is black and his roommate is white. "Now he wears one."

Conversations about black culture, concerts by soul musical groups and observances honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are increasingly becoming a part of the U.S. Naval Academy experience, almost as much as the military balls and classical performances by the glee club.

The change is partly because of an increase in the number of black midshipmen from about a dozen 20 years ago to a high of 250 this year in the 4,500-member brigade. But another factor has been the Midshipmen's Black Studies Club, about 216 black midshipmen and a few whites, who said they have taken on the teaching of black history and culture as a crusade.

Began 1 Years Ago

The club was founded by black midshipmen 14 years ago. Such a black organization had not existed before because there were not enough black midshipmen to form one, said Samuel P. Massie, a chemistry professor who became the first black faculty member in 1966.

In its early years, the club's purpose was to provide social alternatives to academy functions, members and faculty said. But in the last three years, the club's focus has changed. It now offers the entire brigade glimpses of black culture, such as song, dance and tribal history, to supplement the two courses the academy teaches, black literature and black-white relations.

"We teach midshipmen about black contributions, male and female, past and present, and their positive effect on life in America," said Midshipman 1st Class Dondi Edwards, the club's president.

Club members, however, do not just stick to textbook history. They have been called on by other midshipmen to explain the phenomenon of comedian Eddie Murphy, the logistics of the Cabbage Patch (a popular dance) and the secrets of fashionable dressing as well.

Aid in Acceptance

Some midshipmen say the club events have helped black and white midshipmen accept one another. At the academy, which produces the cream of the Navy and the Marines' officers and technical experts, fitting in is sometimes as high a priority as passing the 40-minute swimming test, they said.

Moreover, in this arena where performance and rank determine power, success is often measured by classmates' and officers' impressions.

Take Midshipman 1st Class Joseph Smith, who graduated from a prominent Shreveport, La., school for high achievers.

He came to the academy with a 4.3 high-school grade-point average and his "father's arrogance," he said. But his first remembrance on arriving four years ago was being the only black person on the bus. That feeling of isolation sometimes continued in classes and activities, he said.

"If you have 100 marbles and 95 are clear and five are black, you're going to notice the black ones," he said. "If he is an outstanding performer or if he is a poor performer, he's going to stand out. That's the difference."

Comment on Welfare

Smith said feelings of being different show up anywhere, even in friendly discussions among friends of other races.

"We were discussing welfare reform," Smith recalled. "I remember somebody making a comment: 'Well, why don't they just go out and get jobs?'

"Well, my family's been on welfare before. So I understand everyone on welfare is not some lazy bum who's sitting around collecting a check because he doesn't want to work. It bothered me that they would think that."

The Black Studies Club does not limit its activities to the academy. It has been praised by black community leaders and city officials for its work with black youths.

Club members tutor students from public housing in math and science, the midshipmen's best subjects. They sing as part of the U.S. Naval Academy Gospel Choir at area colleges and along the East Coast. They serve as ushers and escorts for civic social functions. And they have become a growing source of support in Annapolis' network of black churches.

Models for Black Youths

The black midshipmen say they want to serve as models for the city's black youths at a time when the number of black teen-agers arrested for involvement in illegal drug activity is rising.

"Those midshipmen are examples of something attainable. It's right within reach," said Bertina Nick, head of Energizing Self and Community, a civic organization that promotes black youth achievement.

"We try to reach out to the youth," said Edwards, who grew up in a Philadelphia housing project. His mother borrowed money to send him to private schools.

"We want to show them that the only difference between them and us is we've had . . . opportunities, and we wear the uniform here at the academy because we've had those opportunities," he said.

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