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.


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):


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.


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:

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.

A chat with my dad about being one of the first black USN weapons officers

USN LogoThis post follows on from yesterday’s post, Joseph Sheffey – one of the first African American weapons officers in the US Navy.

I had a great conversation with my dad today about his early years in the USN. I’ve finally achieved the knack of framing questions in a way that he can answer them. Again, much of what I’d like to know would be deemed as ‘classified’ and, as such, he wouldn’t be able to provide an answer. It is certainly a challenge when trying to ask a question in such a way that a person can not only answer but answer in a meaningful way.

So this is what I learned:

  1. I asked my father what it was like being an African American in a position of authority that commanded respect on board a submarine in the 50s and the 60s – and then being treated as second class citizen as soon as he stepped foot onto American soil.Answer: It was a twilight world. There was life on the base and that was an extension of life on board the sub. The respect and authority you had on board a sub extended to life on the base and in the housing compound provided by the navy. That respect was extended to your mother because she was a Chief’s wife. Not everyone would have been happy about that but that respect and authority had to be given.

    It would have been easy for me to simply stay in that world. It would have been an easy thing to do. I don’t think people would have blamed me for it. But that wasn’t the real world. You kids needed to live life outside of that protective cocoon.

    Now life in the civilian world, well, that was something else. It was what it was. I remember when I was in training in Norfolk, Virginia in the 50s. I would be in uniform and I would refuse to sit in the back of the bus. Why should I? I was helping defend my country and I just refused to do it. I didn’t care that people threatened to beat me or call the police. I simply wouldn’t do it. It didn’t matter if I was with white crew members or not. In the end, those people just let me be. I sat where I wanted to sit. I knew then and there that I didn’t want to stay in the South.  I didn’t want to be stationed at a base in the South. I didn’t want my family growing up in that environment.

    [My note: This last part was understandable. He’d been born and raised in New Jersey. The 30s and 40s neighborhood he’d grown up in was a close and tight-knit working class community of Italian, Irish, Jewish and African American families living and working together. He has fond memories even now of everyone simply getting along together with the kids playing and dashing in and out of each others houses and the adults with their  gatherings, looking out for each other’s children, gossiping and all the other usual stuff that adults do in any neighborhood. ]

    I earned the respect from my peers in the navy. It wasn’t easy, far from it. But I was a Chief and I couldn’t allow that position to be disrespected. All of the other Chiefs were white and they wouldn’t have tolerated any chief who didn’t insist on maintaining the respect and authority of that position. Sure, I had to make examples of some of my men. In the end it was how I carried myself, my expertise and my conduct that won respect from the vast majority of men under my charge.

    I asked my dad about some of the ways he achieved this. His answer was classic and totally him: I bet the officers and my fellow Chiefs a weekend’s leave that I could disassemble and reassemble a torpedo blindfolded. You see, they didn’t think I was smart enough to do it. So I wanted to show them. It was a hard enough thing to do without a blindfold. So I wanted to go that extra mile to prove my point.

    Well, he did it. And, apparently, became something of a legend afterwards.

  2. I still don’t know how difficult it was to serve on a nuclear sub in those early days of nuclear powered submarines. I tried to ask what qualities the navy looked for but couldn’t frame the question in a way that he could answer (this is still relevant today). Nor do I know how competitive such a posting was. However, I did ask my dad if he asked to serve on a nuclear sub or if he was invited to do so. And found out some pretty amazing information that I don’t think my dad has told anyone before.

    My father was more or less headhunted in High School in New Jersey. His eldest brother, Emmet Thomas (who was a military man at the time), had an acquaintance who was a military recruiter. The USN was looking to increase the number of minorities and his brother Emmett recommended that this man have a chat with my father, who was a junior in high school at the time. After chatting with my dad, the man arranged for my father to enroll in the Junior Cadet programme.

    When my father graduated from high school, he went straight into the USN’s bootcamp and was immediately called up to serve when he completed that training.

    At first he was offered one of the traditional USN postings offered to minority servicemen, and that was a posting as an officer’s steward (the other traditional posting was as a cook). He point blank refused, which took the southern commanding officer who interviewed him by surprise (anyone who serves in the military can kind of guess why). However, the same officer offered him a posting as a torpedo man and, as the saying goes, the rest was history.

    He took a series of exams which he passed and was offered a posting on his first nuclear submarine.

    My father credits much of his early accomplishments to his mother, Susan Julia Roane Thomas Sheffey, and the advice she gave him shortly before he was called up for service: “Do your best at everything you turn your hand to. Don’t you ever accept second best; not from yourself or from anyone else. And always remember that you are a Sheffey and a Roane. You represent both families everywhere you go and in everything you do; never forget that.

I look forward to finding out more when I see him over his birthday weekend.

Joseph Sheffey – one of the first African American weapons officers in the US Navy

Joseph Sheffey, Jr in uniform. Cira 1948

My Dad in uniform. Circa 1948

My father has always been something of a trailblazer. While I’ve never taken this for granted, he’s my dad, so I tend to forget the significance of some of the things he’s achieved in his life.  A recent article about him reminded me of some of the more important aspects of his naval career. It’s only through an adult’s eyes and personal experiences that I can connect to to his achievements on a deeper level.

Born at the height of the Jim Crow era in New Jersey, he was never one to allow race to deter him from what he wanted to achieve in life. A recent article, Greenbelt Submariner Broke Barriers: Submariner Broke Barriers, Served Country brought his achievements into sharp relief.

My father can only speak about his career in the US Navy in the most oblique and circumspect way. While he’s been retired from the USN for decades, details about the missions he served on are still classified.  For instance, he is forbidden from naming the specific submarines he served on. Nor can he discuss or mention any specific incidents or events experienced while on mission. What he can say, nonetheless, is still quite evocative and inspirational.

So what can he say? Well, that he was a weapons officer on nuclear submarines. He would have been part of a corp of men who were the first to handle nuclear missiles in the US Navy. And he wasn’t just a weapons officer – but one of the first African American weapons officers and torpedo chiefs who served on nuclear submarines. He was a person of color who gave orders to American men of European descent in a time before civil rights. I know how well that must have been received in some quarters. I’m sure that a number of men under his command had genuine ‘WTH’ moments – and expressions – when he gave them an order for the first time. But he did it and, considering his commendations, he did it well.

To put this into context, this was an era when the traditional occupation for an African American mariner aboard a submarine was as part of the kitchen staff. When my father joined the Navy full-time in 1951, it was an era in which blacks and whites had separate everything…from water fountains to schools to medical care to separate seating on buses, trains, trams, restaurants and other public spaces. It must have been a surreal experience and existence. He would have had unquestioned authority over his weapons team aboard a submarine. Yet, he would have been a second class citizen as soon as he stepped off that sub onto American soil. It’s something I’m definitely going to chat with him about soon.

He was also something of an unofficial minority affairs liaison for many of his commands. He would assist the captain in addressing racial problems and in improving race relations.

Nuclear subs were still fairly new when he served on his first one. So naturally I’ve had plenty of questions about what day to day life was like on board them. I remember asking him once about how his crew felt about the catastrophic accidents involving the USS Thresher (sank in 1963 with 129 killed) and the USS Scorpion (sank in 1968 with 99 killed). Frustratingly, but understandably, he couldn’t comment.

He began serving at the dawn of the Cold War Era. And you can probably guess I’ve had a multitude of questions about that! Again, a kindly silence on the subject.

I won’t steal the article’s thunder. You can read more about my father’s career here: Greenbelt Submariner Broke Barriers: Submariner Broke Barriers, Served Country – 

Of course I’m biased, but it is a pretty interesting read.

Update dated 14 May 2014

I had a great chat with my father about his early years in the USN.  You can catch his answers in the following post: A chat with my dad about being one of the first black USN weapons officers

Forgotten American Black Jockeys: Joseph Sheffey

Both of my grandfathers were talented horsemen. I like to think I inherited a talent for riding from them…a talent that has come in handy in England, my adopted country. Putting my love of surfing to one side, few things beat the adrenaline rush of galloping around the Cornish countryside and open moorlands.

My maternal Turner grandfather was apparently something of a horse whisper. Family legend says that’s how he got his nickname ‘Buck’. He had a talent for breaking in horses when growing up in rural Maryland.

Joseph Sheffey in his jockey silks, around 1900

Joseph Sheffey in his jockey silks, around 1900

My paternal grandfather, Joseph Sheffey, was a professional jockey. I know precious little about his racing career. Born in Wytheville, VA in 1881, it’s probably here that his racing talent started. The only other information my grandmother mentioned was that he had been a jockey in the big races in New York and New Jersey. She said he’d been a very talented jockey in his day. It never occurred to us to ask her about when he raced or anything about his career.  We just thought it was pretty cool that he’d been a jockey. The picture to the left is the only clue. Sadly, it’s not dated. My family can only hazard a guess based on what we think his age was when the picture was taken and the style of his clothes.  We’re guessing a window of time between 1898 and 1904.

History would suggest 1905 would be a late date – many black jockeys were forced out of American horseracing from 1900 onwards, an arena where a number of their ranks had achieved celebrity status over the previous century. From 1900, the most talented of the American black jockeys continued their careers in Europe.

Whether it was limited racing opportunities or his marriage in 1904, Joseph Sheffey hung up his racing silks shortly after his marriage.

My family would love to learn more about his (albeit short) career as a jockey: the races he entered, names of the horses he rode, wins and racing grounds. Any information would be gratefully received.

In the meantime, it’s my pleasure to add his name to the list of forgotten professional American Black jockeys.