Black women admirals topic of ‘Leading Ladies’ lecture
by Earl Kelly, Hometwon Annapolis
The talk, called “Leading Ladies,” will focus on the careers of retired Rear Adm. Lillian E. Fishburne, a Marylander who graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1971, and Rear Adm. Michelle Howard, a 1982 Naval Academy grad who became the first black woman to command a Navy ship.
These women always sought personal challenges and demanding assignments, which is what made them great, according to tomorrow’s speaker, retired Cmdr. James Jackson.
Cmdr. Jackson will speak at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis where he is curator of an exhibit on black admirals.
“Howard sought the hard duty,” Cmdr. Jackson said of Adm. Howard’s command of a series of ships, as well as leading an amphibious squadron and conducting relief missions in Indonesia after the tsunami in 2005.
“She stayed on the water and honed her skills until she became the logical choice for admiral,” he said.
“Fishburne had a degree in sociology and she knew her weakness was math,” Cmdr. Jackson said of the Navy’s first black female admiral. “So, she enrolled in a community college before entering graduate school at the Naval Postgraduate School. Once she got through that, it opened up the opportunity for her to command naval communications stations.”
The exhibit, titled “Seaworthy: The Navy’s Black Admirals,” focuses on the 39 African Americans who have made flag rank.
Even though blacks make up about 22 percent of the Navy, Cmdr. Jackson said, they have not been appointed in great numbers to the upper echelons.
“There are about 230 admirals on active today, but only 15 of them are black,” Cmdr. Jackson said. “There are 7,000 women officers in the Navy, but there is only one black female (on active duty) who is an admiral.”
In 2006, when then-Capt. Howard was about to receive her first star, she told The Capital in an interview at the Pentagon about an early assignment she had that illustrates the importance of diversity in the military.
On her first day on the job, a chief petty officer pulled her aside and said that the sailors were nervous about having a black woman as their commander.
Many of them were out in the parking lot at that very moment, the master chief told her, scraping Confederate flag decals off their pickup trucks.
“Here is a wonderful master chief, cluing me in about the angst, and I said, ‘Master Chief, I know what their angst is because I have never had leaders who looked like me,’ ” Adm. Howard said.
When asked during the interview about her favorite assignment, Adm. Howard said: “What a pleasure to simply get a task (in 2005) that says, ‘Make best speed to Indonesia, relieve (tsunami) suffering, prevent death.’ That’s all the guidance I need … ”
Cmdr. Jackson, who described himself as the 100th black person to graduate from the Naval Academy, said the exhibit at the Banneker-Douglass Museum is much more than a display of African-American accomplishments.
“The exhibit isn’t a litany of African-American firsts, but a lesson in leadership,” he said. “The trick is knowing your strengths, and knowing your weaknesses, and doing something about your weaknesses.”
“Seaworthy” will be on display until the end of November, said Cmdr. Jackson, who is looking to find a permanent site for the exhibit.
The Banneker-Douglass Museum is housed in the former Mt. Moriah AME Church, built by African Americans in 1874, and the exhibit on black admirals occupies the old sanctuary. Displays of the 13 admirals who graduated from the Naval Academy are located on the ground floor, while the others are located on the church’s balcony.
Cmdr. Jackson has included photographs of the admirals as midshipmen, to help Annapolis residents who might recall these young men – and one woman – when they were at the Naval Academy.
Besides tomorrow’s talk, Cmdr. Jackson will speak on Sept. 20 in a lecture titled “Black Wings: The Story of the Navy’s Admiral Aviators.”
Genevieve Kaplan, the Banneker-Douglass Museum’s head of education, said that about 12,000 people visit the facility each year.
She pointed to some of the popular attractions, including a display of archeological artifacts located on the ground floor that have been uncovered from around Annapolis. Upstairs is another exhibit, “Africa’s Sons & Daughters,” that discusses the life of blacks in the city.
The museum provides an interpretative cell phone tour, and the only charge is the caller’s cell phone minutes. Admission to all exhibits is free.
Retired Cmdr. James Jackson will speak on “Leading Ladies” at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Banneker-Douglass Museum, 84 Franklin St., Annapolis. For more information about the museum, visit www.bdmuseum.com or call 410-216-6180.