James Henry Conyers broke the color barrier when he became the first African American to enroll at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1872. Over 150 years later, the long-forgotten trailblazer has been honored with a monument in South Carolina.
A nomination by Congressman Robert Elliott led to Conyers being sworn into the Naval Academy at 16 in 1872, according to Live 5 News.
On Monday, several of Conyers’ descendants gathered in Charleston with high-ranking military leaders for a memorial dedication ceremony at the Humane and Friendly Society Cemetery. Conyers was honored for his history-making enrollment and for paving the way for the more than 2,500 Black American graduates who followed, The Post and Courier reported.
“He single-handedly broke down barriers,” U.S. Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck said at the ceremony, Live 5 News reports. “Not immediately, not all at once, but in a country that had just survived the ravages of a Civil War, he began to lead the way by example.”
Conyers endured racial harassment during his time at the Naval Academy. White classmates often physically and verbally abused him. One event tried to drown him. After a year of torment, Conyers resigned from the academy, returning home to Charleston where he became a ship caulker.
“While he did not graduate from our Naval Academy, that takes nothing away from the significance of his experience and his role in paving the way ahead,” Buck said, according to The Post and Courier.
Conyers died in 1935, 14 years before Wesley Brown would make history as the Naval Academy’s first Black graduate in 1949.
During Monday’s ceremony, the Naval Academy Alumni Association — which contributed money to fund the monument — unveiled a marker near the gravesite of Conyers and his wife, Fannie Conyers. Their names appear at the bottom of the small obelisk, which acknowledges his place in Naval Academy history.
“Sadly, we can’t go back and change Mr. Conyers’ experience at the Naval Academy. But what we can do and what we must do and are proud to do is to share his story of courage and service,” said Jeff Webb, CEO and president of the Alumni Association. “The telling of that story is long overdue.”
“He is getting his due credit and his place in history is being recognized. The place in history is there, but it’s being recognized. It’s fabulous,” said Carol A. Grant-Rogers, Conyers’ great-granddaughter, who attended the ceremony with other family members and friends. Earlier this year, Grant-Rogers and others tried to locate Conyers’ grave.
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