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Pioneering black sailor James Graham, 90, dies

Jim Graham, a Navy veteran and radio operator

Jim Graham, a Navy veteran and radio operator on the USS Mason, died in the Roosevelt home he shared with his wife, Barbara. Credit: Steven Sunshine

With World War II on the horizon, James Graham, then 19, knew America needed millions of patriots to defend the country's borders. Two days before the United States became involved in 1942, he left the Deep South, where he worked at a tobacco plant, and enlisted in the Navy.

But not even Graham realized the historic impact his service would have as he helped usher in a new wave of black sailors who forever changed how African-Americans participated in the Navy.

Because of high test scores, Graham, born in Lake City, S.C., was assigned to the USS Mason, a destroyer escort and the first U.S. naval ship with a predominantly black crew.

"There weren't a lot of opportunities for blacks, and many of them were programmed to fail," said his wife, Barbara Graham, 88, of Roosevelt. "I consider them heroes and patriots."

James Graham, 90, died Jan. 7.

Graham, stationed in Norfolk, Va., was trained to work on the convoy as a radio operator, which contacted other ships to deliver guns.

Black sailors served with distinction during the Revolutionary and Civil wars and in the War of 1812, but increasing segregation in the Navy eventually consigned them to noncombat roles as stewards and cooks.

A few blacks became officers, only to command shore units.

The pioneering crew of the Mason couldn't avoid racism, as other nonblack Navy men often treated them as second-class citizens and referred to them with racist remarks, family members said.

Graham carried on.

"He wanted to prove to the world that the USS Mason was one worthy ship," Graham said.

Graham's Navy stint ended after more than two years and he settled in Roosevelt. Years would pass before he spearheaded an effort to have his time in the military -- a period when the Navy was desegregated -- recognized.

He wrote several letters to the federal government and then Navy Secretary John Dalton.

In 1995 -- decades after being a part of the first black Navy crew -- the Mason's members were invited to the White House, where they met President Bill Clinton.

It was there that they also received a certificate of appreciation from the World War II Committee and the Congressional Black Caucus.

James Graham and Clinton shook hands, a moment captured by a White House photographer.

"He was speechless. They treated us like royalty. He was so excited, he didn't sleep the two days before or after meeting the president," his wife said. "Who gets to meet the president?"

A 2004 feature film named "Proud" starring Ossie Davis documented the USS Mason's work during World War II. The ship was also the subject of a book and documentary.

"I joined the Navy because of him," said his nephew, William McIver, 67, who spent five years in active duty in the military.

Graham died and slipped out of his wife's arms as she tried to help him around their home. His funeral is set for Monday at John Moore Funeral Home in Roosevelt at 9 a.m.

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