Coast Guard Academy renames officers club after first black graduate, retired Cmdr. Merle Smith
The 75-year-old Smith graduated from the academy in 1966 and went on to become the first African American sea service officer to receive the Bronze Star. Following his Coast Guard career, he became general counsel for Electric Boat, one of the first black general counsels for a Fortune 500 company.
He is included in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Smith’s classmates, in a letter congratulating him on the recognition, said “in recent years, as the emphasis on diversity and inclusiveness grew within the Coast Guard, you became a beacon of inspiration within the academy community encouraging others to strive for the unimaginable and forge new paths of greatness in the face of adversity and uncertainty.”
Rear Adm. Bill Kelly, superintendent at the academy, said in a video message Tuesday that he first met Smith and his wife, Lynda, earlier this year, and talked about opportunities to recognize and honor his legacy.
“They would come back here to meet with family, with friends, with faculty members, with cadets. It was an anchor for them, if you will.” Kelly said of the officers club, adding that Lynda told him they also enjoyed coming to the club on Friday nights to hang out.
In an email thanking Kelly for renaming the building after Smith, Lynda said her husband "not only feels honored but also humbled by this significant recognition of a building being renamed in tribute of his accomplishments."
( It is ironic that Merle was not recruited as a Black High School Student. He was recruited as a Football Player into the Class of 1962. The first Black American Cadets were not recruited until 1964. Football Coach Otto Graham said he was looking for Tight End, or a Defensive End for his football team.(Merle himself pointed this out in his Acceptance Speech in 2016 at the Genesis Awards Ceremony at the Academy when his Portrait was unveiled.) Moreover, he was not recognized or classified as a Black Cadet during his 4 years at the Academy. In point of Fact, he did not appear to be a Black American. His hair was straight; his nose was sharp; and, his skin was lighter than Donnie Winchester, Phil Carbone, Ray Baylor, and others in the Class of 1966. It was not until the early 1970s when Commandant (G-PMR-3) started to emphasize Minority Recruiting that Statistics started to mention the Ethnicity of the Recruits. It was at that time that the Director of (G-PMR-3) proffered the Statistical Fact that Merle was, in fact, a Black American and the First Black Graduate. The Commandant (G-P) did not know that the USCGA had graduated a Black Ensign. His Classmates in their Letter are being a bit disingenuous when they impute altruistic motives after the fact. If we are writing or making History, we should, at least, try to be accurate and honest. His Career has been spectacular and he has had a distinguished tour of duty.)
And although I realize he spent a lot of his time at the O club and what an honor it is to have a building named after him or anyone for that matter.....for a long time black Americans could only be mess cooks in the military. Does it bother him that being named on a dining facility seems to point to that legacy?) (Talisha Rosen-Kellogg)
Not pictured in the newspaper article is Vice Admiral Thomas Sargent.
Above is Admiral Thomas Sargent graduated from the United States Coast Guard Academy in 1938. He was then assigned to the USCGC Tahoe.
Below is Admiral Willard John Smith who is pictured in the Graduation Ceremony picture. Upon graduation from the academy in 1933, he was assigned to a Galveston, Texas-based Coast Guard cutter and later served as an aide to Commandant Russell R. Waesche from 1936 to 1939.