By Justin Hall, National Museum of the American Sailor Contract Curator
As a member of the Golden Thirteen, the first African American sailors to undergo officer training at Great Lakes Naval Training Station (now Naval Station Great Lakes), Dennis Nelson broke down color barriers throughout his Naval career. While other members of the Golden Thirteen made accomplishments for equality in their post-Navy professional lives, Nelson was the only member of his officer class to serve a full career on active duty in the Navy. During his service, he challenged segregation and fought for equality in the Navy.
Dennis Nelson graduated from both Fisk and Howard Universities and was an instructor of Social Science at Fisk University before enlisting in the Navy on June 6, 1942. During the war, he personally witnessed the beginnings of the slow change in Navy policy that would eventually lead to an integrated fleet. In 1942, African American men were allowed to enlist in the general service, thus providing greater service opportunities. The outcome of integration, however, was not inevitable. Although African Americans were provided greater opportunities, discrimination in the Navy continued as they were discouraged from pursuing particular rates.
In March 1944, the Navy selected Dennis Nelson as one of the Golden Thirteen. Nelson was the only member of the Golden Thirteen who achieved a regular commission and pursued a naval career. During his service, he worked for the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BUPERS) in Washington, D.C. and utilized his position to fight for integration and equal opportunity. One example of Dennis Nelson’s fight for desegregation in the Navy is his book The Integration of the Negro into the U.S. Navy. The Integration of the Negro into the U.S. Navy was first submitted as a report on April 26, 1948 to the National Defense Conference on Negro Affairs. In this work, Nelson argues that racial stereotypes are fictional and that with equal treatment and good leadership any one, regardless of race, is capable of performing in an integrated Navy. Nelson understood that the Navy depended on African American enlistment in order to meet personnel quotas. Rather than challenge societal structures being unsuitable for the ideals of democracy, he argued that societal structures were unsuitable for the Navy because they hindered the service from achieving its fullest potential. A few months after Nelson’s report, on July 26, 1948 President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which abolished racial discrimination in the military enforced desegregation. Due to Nelson’s contribution to the desegregation of the Navy, his report was later published as a book in 1951.
In his book The Golden Thirteen: Recollections of the First Black Naval Officers, historian Paul Stillwell describes Dennis Nelson as a man who would personally get involved when he believed that African Americans were underrepresented. As a result of his assertive and abrasive personality and equal rights advocacy, Nelson’s superiors viewed him as a nuisance. Stillwell suggests that due to his advocacy, LCDR Nelson ultimately sacrificed advancement in his own naval career due to his relentless pursuit for integration and equality.