Our American Story

Spotlight on African American Military Heroes

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Lorenzo A. DuFau

As the National Museum of African American History and Culture celebrates Veterans Day on November 11th, we'll be focusing attention on the often forgotten sacrifices and contributions of African American patriots. These heroes include the men of the USS Mason, which made history during World War II as our nation's first ship manned by a predominantly black crew.

Launched on November 17, 1943, the Evarts-class destroyer escort carried an enlisted crew of 160 serving under Lt. Commander William M. Blackford and five other white officers. Prior to the Mason, black men in the Navy had been limited to support roles such as cooks, stewards and laborers, and even had to wear different uniforms than those worn by other sailors. The commissioning of the Mason came about as a result of intense pressure from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and others to integrate the armed forces. 

But the transition wasn't easy, with the Mason's crew forced to confront intense racism in the naval ranks and a widespread belief that the "social experiment" would fail. The men of the Mason responded to the hostility and doubts by performing their duty, which often times was dangerous, with extraordinary bravery and dedication. Their exploits while escorting supply ships and intercepting German U-boat messages in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea were chronicled by African American journalist Thomas W. Young, who was commissioned by the Navy as a war correspondent aboard the Mason.

The Mason's story might have remained lost to history if not for the efforts of a small but determined group that included the Destroyer Escort Sailors Association, the USS Mason Association, Congressman Charles Rangel and author Mary Pat Kelly, whose book Proudly We Served helped bring attention to the men of the Mason. In 2004, the book was made into the movie Proud, starring renowned actor and activist Ossie Davis in his final film role as Signalman Second Class Lorenzo DuFau, the last surviving member of the Mason crew.

The growing clamor to recognize the contributions of the men of the Mason resulted in the Navy finally awarding the long-delayed commendation to surviving crewmembers in 1995. And in 2003, the Navy commissioned a new ship in honor of the heroes of the Mason the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mason, the only U.S. Navy ship ever named for a crew, whose motto is "Proudly We Serve."

The courage and commitment of the Mason's crew helped pave the way for the integration of the armed forces by President Harry S. Truman in 1948. By countering the prevailing notions of black inferiority, the men of the Mason helped to win both the battle against the Axis powers and the battle at home against racism and discrimination. This notion was enshrined in the Double V (for "Double Victory") Campaign, a national effort that called on African Americans to give their all to win a victory overseas, while calling for a victory for equal rights in the U.S.

As a nation, we have been made better by the determination and skill of the crew of the Mason. As the National Museum of African American History and Culture joins the rest of our nation in saluting our nation's veterans, we move forward with our mission to ensure that military heroes like the crew of the USS Mason and history-making African Americans from every field of endeavor receive the recognition they deserve. When the Museum opens in fall 2016, our inaugural Military History Gallery will feature artifacts from this exciting chapter of the African American story, including Lorenzo DuFau’s naval dress jacket and medals, as well as materials from the Double V Campaign. 

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