Since becoming the first African-American to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy in 1966, Merle Smith has seen more diversity among the corps of cadets. But he says the academy still has work to do to better reflect the face of America.
The service academy, which is honoring Smith with a pioneer award Sunday, has been getting pressure from Congress to boost enrollment of minorities, particularly African-Americans, who account for roughly 5 percent of incoming cadets.
Smith, 67, said in an interview that he has been impressed by the academy's recruitment efforts.
"We're not there, but we've got to keep pushing for it," he said.
The push to achieve diversity at the academy in New London dates back more than 50 years to the inaugural parade of President John F. Kennedy, who noted there wasn't a single black cadet in the Coast Guard Academy marching unit that passed him on Pennsylvania Avenue. Kennedy told an aide something ought to be done about it.
Smith arrived on campus a year later and, as the son of an Army colonel, he adapted well to the military environment and generally did not feel like an outsider.
"Every now and then you would get something that would happen. Someone would make some remark somewhere," he said. "In the main, it was not a situation that I felt uncomfortable with."
After graduating, his Coast Guard career took him to Vietnam in 1969, where he commanded a patrol boat for a year. He became the first sea-service African-American to be awarded a Bronze Star. He received a law degree from George Washington University and returned to the New London area to work as an attorney for Electric Boat, the Groton-based submarine builder. He also taught law at the Coast Guard Academy.
Smith is among five people being honored as part of an annual event, known as Eclipse Week. The event began decades ago to support African-Americans in the Coast Guard community and now promotes discussion of diversity across the academy.
The other honorees include Frances Neal, an African-American food service worker for 25 years and surrogate mother to many cadets, and Vice Admiral Manson K. Brown, an African-American who is commander of the Pacific area for the Coast Guard and a former student of Smith's. A former equal employment opportunity officer at the academy and a rear admiral credited with diversity leadership also will be honored.
The academy has about 1,030 cadets in its four-year program. Students graduate with a bachelor of science degree and an obligation to serve five years in the Coast Guard.
Minorities accounted for 34 percent of the class of 2015 although blacks represent only 4 or 5 percent, according to Antonio Farias, the academy's chief diversity officer.
Academy officials have been called to report on diversity numbers to Congress, which has considered various proposals to boost black enrollment.
"We've taken that to heart," Farias said. "It's also been a clarifying experience. We know what we're trying to do."
Last year the academy launched a leadership program that invites science and technology students from historically black colleges and universities to help train cadets. The goal is to have them return to their communities and share project-based educational methods in a way that trickles down to high school and even elementary school students. The academy also has started inviting teachers from diverse communities for training in the summers, Farias said.
One obstacle is limited knowledge about the Coast Guard in the black community.
"There aren't that many people in the African-American community that really encounter the Coast Guard because it's not a great boating community," Smith said.
Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat who has pushed for a more diverse corps of cadets, urged the academy to continue to prioritize outreach efforts despite budget pressures.
"The exceptional strides the Coast Guard Academy has made in expanding diversity are a testament to the service's commitment to ensuring its officer corps reflects the nation it serves," Cummings said.
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(Photo: AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard Academy)