The Coast Guard Academy will honor its first African-American graduate by presenting him with a pioneer award on Sunday, April 1st.
Merle Smith, 67, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1966. Since then, the Academy has become more diverse, although it still receives pressure from Congress to increase enrollment among minorities, especially African-Americans, who comprise about 5 percent of incoming cadets.
Smith shared, however, that all things considered, he is impressed by the recruitment efforts made by the Academy: “We’re not there, but we’ve got to keep pushing for it.”
The initial “push” towards making the Coast Guard Academy more diverse began during the inaugural parade of President John F. Kennedy, who commented that he did not see a single black cadet in the Coast Guard Academy marching unit, and told an aide that something should be done about it.
One year later, Smith, the son of an Army colonel, arrived at the Academy. He adjusted well to military life, and generally did not feel like he was an outsider: “Every now and then you would get something that would happen. Someone would make some remark somewhere… In the main, it was not a situation that I felt uncomfortable with.”
Smith embarked on his Coast Guard career after graduation, and served in Vietnam in 1969. He became the first sea-service African-American to receive a Bronze Star.
Smith finished law at the George Washington University, and worked as an attorney for the Groton-based submarine builder Electric Boat.