Breaking the Color Barrier

The U.S. Naval Academy's First Black Midshipmen and the Struggle for Racial Equality

331 pages

15 illustrations

December, 2007

ISBN: 9780814740552



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Robert J. Schneller Jr. is an official historian in the Contemporary History Branch of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Historical Center and holds a Ph.D. in military history from Duke University. He is an award-winning biographer and historian, and has published several books on American naval history, including Shield and Sword: The United States Navy and the Persian Gulf War, and A Quest for Glory: A Biography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren. He lives in Washington, D.C.

All books by Robert J. Schneller, Jr.

Winner of the 2006 Richard W. Leopold Prize from the Organization of American Historians

Winner of the 2006 George Pendleton Prize from the Society for History in the Federal Government

Only five black men were admitted to the United States Naval Academy between Reconstruction and the beginning of World War II. None graduated, and all were deeply scarred by intense racial discrimination, ranging from brutal hazing incidents to the institutionalized racist policies of the Academy itself.

Breaking the Color Barrier examines the black community's efforts to integrate the Naval Academy, as well as the experiences that black midshipmen encountered at Annapolis. Historian Robert J. Schneller analyzes how the Academy responded to demands for integration from black and white civilians, civil rights activists, and politicians, as well as what life at the Academy was like for black midshipmen and the encounters they had with their white classmates.

In 1949, Midshipman Wesley Brown achieved what seemed to be the impossible: he became the first black graduate of the Academy. Armed with intelligence, social grace, athleticism, self-discipline, and an immutable pluck, as well as critical support from friends and family, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, and the Executive Department, Brown was able to confront and ultimately shatter the Academy’s tradition of systematic racial discrimination.

Based on the Navy’s documentary records and on personal interviews with scores of midshipmen and naval officers, Breaking the Color Barrier sheds light on the Academy’s first step in transforming itself from a racist institution to one that today ranks equal opportunity among its fundamental tenets.


  • “Not only has [Schneller] given us his remarkable insight into one man's story of courage, perseverance and determination, but he has framed that dramatic experience within the larger narration of American race relations in the twentieth century…. Anyone desiring a more complete understanding of African Americans' struggle to desegregate the armed forces will find this book indispensable.”

    Journal of American History

  • “A marvelous book. Schneller takes what might first appear to be a fairly narrow topic and offers a sweeping, well-researched account which places the question of race at the Naval Academy in the context of the Navy and the nation.”

    International Journal of Maritime History

  • “Describes for the first time the difficulties Wesley Brown endured and the concerted effort by a ‘tight knot’ of Southern upperclassmen to oust him using racial epithets, ostracism, and demerits.”

    Washington Post

  • “This detailed story is one that has been long overdue in being told. Dr. Schneller has told it exceedingly well.”

    Proceedings/U.S. Naval Institute

  • “This richly researched and judiciously written study facilitates deeper comprehension of how institutional racism preserved white hegemony in the U.S. Navy until Midshipman Wesley Brown detonated its color barrier.”

    —Darlene Clark Hine, author of A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America