I think that a lot of us get our history from movies these days. I'm not trying to give a plug to a Disney movie, but the character played by Cuba Gooding Jr. got some attention. He plays a steward, one of the few jobs open to African-Americans in the navy back then, who mans an anti-aircraft gun during the attack and is later decorated for his efforts. His character is based on a real man. But the movie does point out how segregated the Navy was.
The movie "Glory" tells the story of one of the first all-black units in the Union Army during the Civil War. This was a unit that wanted to get into combat, and had to overcome prejudice in order to do so. The story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been told on film as well, black pilots fighting to be allowed to fight in World War II, when some questioned whether African-Americans could be pilots. Hopefully we've come a long way since those days.
But those units, the ones during the Civil War, and later during World War II, were segregated. So it came as something of a shock, I think, when a painstaking review of Navy records from the Civil War showed that the crews were integrated. 18,000 escaped slaves and others fought on board ships next to their white crew-mates. And a lot of them went on to distinguished careers after the war. Most of this came as news to their descendents, and quite honestly, to us as well.
So July 3rd, on the eve of July 4th, when most of us are more concerned with making sure we have everything we need for the BBQ and where to park for the fireworks, this night seemed like a good time to tell the story of those men who risked their lives to preserve a nation that would not treat them as equal citizens after the war.
These days, things are different. African-Americans make up a substantial percentage of the Navy, as well as the other services. Of the Navy's 316 ships, 14 or so are commanded by African-Americans. That's progress. Is it enough? That's a question that's always difficult to answer. So tonight we'll be telling the story of men who put on a uniform and went to sea 140 years ago, and we'll talk to their descendents, both those related by blood, and those related by the uniforms they wear.
I hope everyone has a happy July Fourth, and remember, we'll be replaying the Eva Cassidy broadcast tomorrow night.
Leroy Sievers is executive producer for Nightline.