Joseph C Sheffey, Jr: A US Navy race relations pioneer

My father’s US Naval career spanned some 30+ years when he retired. Considering the length of his career, my siblings and I know very little about his service. There’s a good reason for this. His missions were, and remain, classified. His service spanned the Cold War era, so it makes sense. It’s never stopped us being curious about his time in the Navy. However, I know whenever I asked him for details, I was always met with a polite but firm wall of silence. Even now, decades after he retired, he won’t speak about it.

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Dad on a US Naval training mission in Italy in the early 1950’s

A document surfaced that unveiled a part of his career my siblings and I didn’t really know much about. I can’t speak for my siblings, but I know I never knew about this aspect of his career. It’s a pretty precious find.

Our father downsized his living arrangements not too long ago. You know what a monumental task that is if you’ve helped your parents through this process. The upside is this is when you can stumble across some amazing finds. My sister and I made quite the discovery while sorting through the Mount Kilimanjaro of old papers.   You can see it below (click it for a larger image):

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I finally had something my father could actually discuss!

The letter says it all, really. However, there was more to the tale. It turns out that the US Navy race relations program my father created was so successful that it was rolled out to other Naval bases. It was the foundation of the US Navy diversity training that is delivered today.

Jim Crow was in full force when my father joined the Navy in the early 1950’s.

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The U.S. Naval Training Center, Bainbridge, MD served the USN for 34 years – from its beginning as a recruit training command in 1942 to its closing on 31 March 1976. This is my father’s  Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS) graduation photo taken around 1950 when dad was 17. My father is in the second row from the front, last one on the right hand side. Click for larger image

The foundation of what would be the 1960s Civil Rights movement was just taking root at this time. Undaunted, my father rose through the ranks of the 1950s USN. When he was made a Petty Officer, he not only had to prove himself as a worthy PO, he had to prove himself as a worthy African American PO. He was issuing orders to men who had never taken orders from a man of colour in the whole lives. It was no easy task. Nevertheless, he won the respect and admiration of his men. Dad was, and is, made of tough stuff.

The early 70s, when his race relations program was launched, was a period of civil and racial unrest in America.  Not too dissimilar to the social and racial unrest of today. The Navy wasn’t immune from the same unrest that was occurring in the civilian population. The Kitty Hawk riot in 1972 is one example (Racial violence breaks out aboard U.S. Navy ships: http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/racial-violence-breaks-out-aboard-u-s-navy-ships).

I asked my dad a pretty logical question: Why him? His answer was typically to-the-point. He’d been marked for advancement by the Navy’s senior command’s radar for a few years prior to the establishment of this program. He was respected by commanding officers and the rank-and-file. His quick-thinking and level headedness made him the right man for the job in their view. Or, as he also said, he was in the right place at the right time.

His success led to his promotion to Chief Petty Officer.

So, in the month where my father turned 84, here’s a bit of recognition for one of his many Naval career achievements.

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5 thoughts on “Joseph C Sheffey, Jr: A US Navy race relations pioneer

  1. I can certainly tell the family resemblance . . . handsome man indeed! This special tribute and feature about your father is WONDERFUL. Thanks for sharing his Navy life with us!

  2. Thank you for sharing your father’s note worthy accomplishments. He was a man who demonstrated understanding, empathy, gentleness, common sense, patience, wisdom, administrative skills and a host of other honorable qualities. He fulfilled one of the purposes which the Most High Creator YAH had summoned him to do.as he exhibited what it means to be “your brother’s keeper.” Please, tell him thanks for showing us what “love” of your fellow person (male/female) looks like in action.

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