515. Segregation at Sea

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Level: Gallery Deck

Read directions to Officer Berthing


U.S. Navy policy during World War II reflected prejudice in American society. Black sailors found their worth questioned and their options limited.

Video: Segregation at Sea

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For an audio-described version, use the video below

Collection Connection

Three overlapping black and white photos in the ship’s cruise book of racially diverse crew members playing instruments and singing at the ship’s anniversary party.
1945 Cruise Book

Living and working assignments on Intrepid during World War II were segregated. Entertainment was one of the few things that brought Black and white crew members together. Several stewards were talented musicians and singers. James Herb, steward’s mate second class, was in at least three performing groups. This page of the cruise book record Black and white crew members performing together at the ship’s anniversary party in August 1945.

Collection of the Intrepid Museum. 1945 USS Intrepid cruise book.

Learn More: USS Mason and a Double Victory in World War II

During World War II, Black community leaders pushed for a “Double Victory” over fascism abroad and racism at home. Activists fought for greater opportunity for Black men and women serving in the U.S. military.

At the beginning of the war, most Black men in the U.S. Navy served as stewards, cooking and cleaning for officers. In 1942, the Navy opened more occupations to Black men, but only allowed Black sailors to serve in those jobs on shore. On seagoing combat ships like Intrepid, Black crew members remained limited to the steward role.

Continued pressure from Black leaders forced the Navy to reconsider this policy. In 1944, the destroyer escort USS Mason sailed with a majority Black crew. Serving on Mason gave Black sailors essential experience working at sea and enabled talented crew members to advance in rank to petty officer. Mason’s crew won praise for patching a broken deck and rescuing other ships during a storm in the North Atlantic. Their success helped convince the Navy to integrate all ships and bases in 1945. 

However, when Black veterans returned to civilian life, they discovered segregation still firmly in place. In the coming decades, veterans pushed for freedom and equality for Black Americans.

The U.S. Navy periodically changes or eliminates occupations for enlisted sailors, which are called ratings. 

In the early 1970s, the Navy began taking steps to eliminate the steward rating. Stewards prepared and served food for officers and cleaned officers’ staterooms. The steward rating was part of a long history of racial discrimination in the Navy. Over the years, various Navy policies restricted Black and Filipino sailors to this subservient role. To learn more about the history of Filipino stewards on Intrepid, visit Mobile Guide Stop 455: Filipino Sailors in the U.S. Navy.

A number of factors led to the elimination of the steward rating. The Civil Rights movement compelled the Navy to examine its discriminatory policies and practices. In addition, Congress was pressuring the military to eliminate special treatment for officers. 

In 1975, the Navy combined the steward rating with commissaryman. Commissarymen prepared and served meals for enlisted sailors. The new rating was called mess management specialist. Job responsibilities focused on menu planning and food preparation for enlisted sailors as well as officers. A pool of enlisted sailors took over some of the cleaning duties formerly done by stewards. 

In 2004, the Navy changed the name of this rating to culinary specialist in order to make a clearer connection to careers in the civilian sector.

Panel Photo: This is a description of the image printed on the panel for this stop at the museum.

Photo description: Men in white jackets serve dinner to men in Navy officer uniforms. All the men serving food have dark skin. The men in officer uniforms have light skin.

Caption: Officers dining on a cruiser, 1945.

Credit: National Archives


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