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.

The 1926 Lynching of Raymond Byrd Part II

The August 1926 lynching of my second cousin twice removed, Raymond Arthur Byrd, remains one of my most read posts. Every week. Thanks to Google Analytics, I’ve been able to monitor the reach with posts relating to Raymond’s story. It doesn’t surprise me that Black History/Studies academics have read it. I can gauge this from all of the readers accessing the original post from university computers (e.g. IPs associated with accounts like .edu and The NAACP has certainly read it. As have journalists from CNN, Al Jazeera, the BBC the UK’s Channel 4, Italy’s La Repubblica and the French newspaper Le Monde. It’s also been read by people at Twentieth Century Fox. It’s reach led to a British PhD student to get in touch with myself and one of Raymond’s descendants as part of her research into race issues in America.

This is a widely read story.

I’ve published one chapter of the story. That post covered  the circumstances which led up to Raymond’s lynching (Love and Lynching in Wytheville: Raymond Arthur Byrd

I’d drafted a second chapter which discussed the immediate aftermath and the effect it had on his wife and children. I’ve never been able to bring myself to publish it. However, the poem written by Raymond’s widow, Tennessee “Tennie” Hawkins speaks to this far more eloquently and poignantly than I ever could:

In the cemetery at Murphysville where the flowers gently wave
Lies the one I love so dear in a cold shallow grave.
Folks may think I have forgotten and may think the wound has healed,
but they do not know the sorrow that is in my heart concealed.
I do not know the pain he bore
I did not see him die,
but this I know,
he had to go and did not say goodbye.
Sleep on, Sleep on, early fallen in your green narrow bed.
I will see you in eternity where no more goodbyes are said.

picture of WWI veteran Raymond Arthur Byrd with his wife, Tennesse "Tennie" Hawkins. Image courtesy of Anthony Q.

WWI veteran Raymond Arthur Byrd with his wife, Tennesse “Tennie” Hawkins. Image courtesy of Hayes family and Anthony Quinn. This image is subject to copyright protection. Permission is required for use.

With a story as horrific and tragic as this, there is always more to be told. This is a painful story. Raymond’s descendants still feel the pain of his loss and the circumstances behind that loss. So needless to say they are not always up to the task of discussing it. No one wants their family defined by personal events like this. His descendants have been. And that is a hard past to live with.  I write this update mindful that thousands perished in the southern states due to lynching:  African Americans, Irish, Italians, Hispanics and Chinese. The pain of Raymond’s family is one that too many families will be all too familiar with.

Raymond’s lynching was big news in America in 1926. Time Magazine and several newspapers around the country wrote several articles about it. I’ve embedded a number of contemporary articles at the bottom of this post.

My cousin Anthony Q recently provided more information about the aftermath of Raymond’s lynching.  Anthony’s wife is Raymond’s direct descendant. Anthony has provided a glimpse into an aspect that I’ve never really thought about: how did those who did the lynching live with themselves afterwards? 90 years later people are still uptight speaking about it.

I’ve seen pictures of lynch mobs. All those proud and smiling faces. Seemingly righteous and congratulatory  in their actions. I’m now asking myself if this was always the case. I’ll let Anthony’s own words do the talking:

Raymond Byrd, Wythe County, Virginia, was lynched (shot in the head, beaten about his head, dragged from his jail cell and taken about 9 miles and hung from a tree near a church) in 1926. He was a married man, age 31, veteran of WW1, of 3 daughters. He became involved with a young white woman (employer’s daughter) and she was impregnated by him. They hid the pregnancy but tried to find a home for the baby. They eventually found one.  However, by then, the walls were caving in.

The white woman’s [Minnie Gubb] father and locals found out about the affair. They tried to coerce the young woman to lie and say he raped her. She wouldn’t do it. They then made her 12-year-old sister lie and say he ‘came after’ her. This statement in hand, locals arrested him on these charges. After threats, and people warning to move him to a jail where he would be better protected were ignored, 50 white men in masks came in the jailhouse that night (sheriff/deputies somehow were nowhere to be found) got the keys and brutalized and killed him in a manner to warn other African Americans who thought about stepping out of what was deemed acceptable in that town.

Minnie never got along with her father after the killing and had as little as possible to do with him.

Floyd Willard was the only man indicted by a Grand Jury for the lynching bragged about being involved. He was acquitted after only ten minutes of deliberation during the trial on July 19, 1927. His family lied and said he was home during the whole time of the killing.

Walter White, later head of the NAACP, helped the family to investigate the murder.

Click for larger image.

It’s the next piece of the story that Anthony recently shared that really hit me.

Talking to descendants and others, most of the men involved [in the lynching] all died terrible deaths. There was a case where a man was on his death bed saying, “Raymond Bird! Leave me alone. Leave me alone! Help me someone. Get him out.” I’m not sure how true this is, but many people I spoke to who don’t know one another told similar stories about how some of these men died. Many of them seemed to be haunted by [Raymond].

Haunted. In its rightful context, it’s a powerful word. And apt. The more I learn about this part of my family’s history, the more the facts reveal themselves, the more I realize that no one came out of this unscathed.

While a social and legal justice did not serve Raymond or his family, another form of justice seems to have prevailed on those who killed him.  That’s where I’m going to leave this post.

Note: I expect there will be a number of comments for this post. Please note that I read and approve every comment before it’s published. I also check each and every backlink to Genealogy Adventures posts. There will be a short time lag (usually an hour or two) before comments are published and/or backlinks approved. It’s a very sad commentary of our times that just because something can be said – no matter how incorrect, faulty or just plain nasty – doesn’t mean that it should be. So I take these measures to ensure that this blog remains respectful and, well, a safe place for conversations to be had and viewpoints shared.

I’ve provided clips below to indicate the scale of this story in Virginia and the rest of the country. The clippings are courtesy of Please click on each to see a larger image. Raymond’s surname was changed from Byrd to Bird. It’s a guess, but I’m of the mind that this was done to disassociate Raymond from then Virginia Governor, Harry F Byrd, who may or may not have been a distant relation.


The first article below shows how quickly misinformation spread. The 3 children mentioned in this article were most likely the daughters he had with his wife, Tennie Hawkins. He only had one child with Minnie Grubb, also a daughter. Despite claims made at the time, Minnie was the only other woman Raymond had relations with.

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