October 16, 2021
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Highlight contributions of African Americans

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
February 12, 2021

Many articles have been written about Black History Month over the years. You can read mine from last year at: Many highlight contributions of African Americans who were well known inventors, sports figures, politicians, educators, or civil rights activists. Folks like Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, Mohammad Ali, Maya Angelou, Malcom X and of course Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year, I wanted to celebrate the month with a slightly different focus. Having a 42-year association with the U.S. Coast Guard, I wanted to share some of their Black American History. 

Captain Michael Healy was a career officer with the United States Revenue Cutter Service. This was the predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard. He was the first person of African American descent to command a ship of the United States government. Perhaps best known as the Commanding Officer of the Cutter Bear, he and his crew patrolled the Alaskan coastline for more than 20 years. When commercial fishing depleted the whale and seal populations, he helped prevent starvation among native Alaskans by importing Siberian reindeer to Alaska. His father was an Irish planter in Georgia and his mother a mixed race African American slave in a “common-law marriage.” Healy was commissioned in 1865 and retired in 1903. In 1999, the USCG Cutter Healy was named in his honor.

Alex Haley, the author of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” and “The Autobiography of Malcom X” started his writing career during his Coast Guard days. Enlisting in1939, during World War II while serving in the Pacific, Haley became known for helping his shipmates write love letters back home. Originally a steward, one of the few jobs open to blacks at the time, after the war Haley petitioned the service to allow him to transfer into the field of journalism. The rating was expressly created for him in recognition of his literary ability. In 1949 he became a Petty Officer First Class in the rating of journalist. He later advanced to Chief Petty Officer, a rank he held until his retirement in 1959. Haley won a Pulitzer Prize for Roots and ABC adapted the book as a television miniseries in 1977. The book and television series raised public awareness of Black American history and inspired a broad interest in genealogy and family history. The Coast Guard named its dining hall at Training Center Petaluma in his honor. They also annually present a Chief Journalist Alex Haley Award for writing,

Emien Tunnell was the first African American to play for the NFL’s New York Giants. He later played for the Green Bay Packers. He was also one of the first black coaches for both teams. In 1967 he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame becoming the first African American and the first player who played strictly as a defensive back to be inducted. Tunnell also served in the Coast Guard during World War II. Enlisting in 1943 he served until discharged after the war in 1946. In March 1946, Tunnell rescued a shipmate who fell from the USS Tampa. He jumped into the 32-degree water to save the drowning man. In 2011, he was posthumously recognized by having the gymnasium on Coast Guard Island named in his honor. He was also awarded the “Silver Lifesaving Medal” for rescuing his shipmate. In 2017 the Coast Guard announced plans to name one of their “Sentinel Class” cutters the USCGC Emien Tunnell. In 2021, they announced they would be naming the athletic building at the Coast Guard Academy the “Emien Tunnell Strength and Conditioning Center.”

Master Chief Angela McShan was the first black woman to achieve that rank. She began her career in 1979. Early career was as a “Storekeeper.” It included a teaching assignment at Storekeeper School aboard Coast Guard Training Center Petaluma. She was a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator at the Petaluma training center and again at the Coast Guard’s Training Center in Yorktown, VA. In 1993, McShan changed her occupational rating from Storekeeper to Yeoman. In 1998 she was assigned to the staff of the Chief Petty Officer’s Academy in New London, CT. Advancing to Master Chief in 2000, she was slated to return to Training Center Petaluma as Chief of the Yeoman School. Two months after her promotion and before she could execute her orders, she lost her battle with cancer. In her honor, the “Angela M. McShan Inspiration Leadership Award” is given annually to an outstanding Chief Petty Officer. The Coast Guard Cutter Angela McShan is also named after her.

Master Chief Vince Patton was the first African American Master Chief of the Coast Guard (MCPO-CG) from 1998-2002.  The MCPO-CG is the senior enlisted member of the service and acts as the principal advisor to the Commandant of the Coast Guard on all enlisted personnel matters. Patton was the eighth MCPO-CG to hold that position. His career started in 1972. His initial occupational specialty was Radioman, but he changed to Yeoman in 1979. He retired in 2002. During his distinguished career he served twice at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Earning his college degrees while on active duty, he received his Doctor of Education degree in 1984 from the American University in D.C. His dissertation was based on the development and implementation of the Coast Guard’s Enlisted Evaluation System. 

All these trailblazers have led the way for those who follow them. They’ve earned numerous awards and accolades along the way. There are many more such as the first black Admiral, the first black aviator, the first black graduates of the Coast Guard Academy, or the first black Commanding Officer of major Coast Guard commands and vessels. Both men and women. Space precludes telling all their stories. However, these few, represent the many who have made the USCG a better service, more equal, an option for those African Americans who follow in their footsteps.