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Loved ones of Richmond Navy trailblazer Admiral Samuel Gravely plan memorial statue in hometown

Updated: Feb. 27, 2020 at 6:20 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The loved ones of a Richmond Navy trailblazer, Admiral Samuel Gravely, are planning a memorial statue in his hometown.

“Mr. Gravely was an iconic figure in our neighborhood,” said James Chambliss, a veteran himself who grew up around the block from Gravely and his children.

A U.S. warship is named after Gravely, the first black man to become a Navy officer, and ultimately a three-star vice admiral. He was also inducted into the Surface Warfare Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C.

But in Richmond, where Gravely spent the majority of his life, just a street sign and marker bear his namesake on the block where he lived on Nicholson Street.

Samuel Gravely grew up in the Fulton neighborhood in the 1920s, the oldest of five siblings.

"There were a lot of obstacles he had to face," said Laurette Cain Johnson Turner, Gravely’s niece, who lives in Richmond. "My mother and (Gravely) were very close. He was close with all of his siblings," said Turner.

Gravely’s father, a railroad worker, raised his children alone after their mother passed away from cancer when she was in her early 30s. Gravely was just 13 years old when he lost his mother.

He enlisted in the Navy during World War II, as a fireman apprentice. Gravely valued education and propelled his military career, attending VUU, UCLA, Pre-Midshipman School in New Jersey and Midshipmen School at Columbia University.

"When he came home, I used to always see him in his dress whites,” recalled Chambliss of Gravely’s commanding and determined presence, which touched him as a young child. “He provided a template for me to model myself after.”

Underneath a soft-spoken exterior, Turner said Gravely had a will to succeed that was as formidable as the destroyer now named for him, the USS Gravely.

Gravely committed to education, becoming the first African American commissioned as a naval officer, despite backlash from a racially changing Navy.

"When (Gravely) became an officer, he was going to sleep in the officer's quarters, but one of the guys said, 'You can't sleep in here with me,’” said Turner, of the pushback her uncle faced from white comrades.

"Through his dogmatic dedication toward education, (he) found a way to maneuver through the military, even with the segregation and the boundaries that were placed upon him," said Chambliss.

Turner said her uncle told accounts of white sailors refusing to salute him. In another instance, hate mail was sent to his family’s home, filled with feces.

But Turner said Gravely pressed on, not allowing anything to deter him from succeeding. He aimed not only to lead men but to change hearts.

"One man did not salute him and another officer caught it,” she said. “They were going to arrest this guy, and my uncle said, 'Wait a minute. We're not going to do that.' And (Gravely) talked to him and the guy fell in love with my uncle.”

Gravely was named as a vice admiral, commanding an entire fleet of both black and white crewmen. He was also highly decorated, earning medals including the Legion of Merit, Bronze Star, Meritorious Service Medal and Navy Commendation Medal.

"He was always so humble," said Turner.

Gravely passed away in 2004 at the age of 82 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. He leaves behind three children and his wife, Alma, who still resides in Virginia.

Chambliss and Turner are now raising funds for an Admiral Gravely memorial.

"I found it as an insult that there is nothing in his hometown to commemorate his accomplishments, aside from a pothole-filled street," said Chambliss.

Chambliss envisions a statue or memorial site, possibly at a new park slated to break ground this spring in the Fulton neighborhood.

“How could we not recognize this man and his accomplishments for not only Richmond or Fulton, but for the entire nation and world,” he said. “This man reached overseas… commanded fleets.”

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