ANNAPOLIS, Md. – About 200 people honored the first black graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at a memorial service Wednesday, recalling a man of courage who helped open doors for generations of minorities decades before the civil rights era.
Retired Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown, who died last month at 85, was memorialized as a trailblazer who shrugged off poor treatment by classmates to become the first black to graduate from the military academy in 1949. His ashes were interred before the service in a columbarium on the academy grounds.
NASA's first black administrator, astronaut Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, was among those lauding Brown's achievement.
"I stand before all of you today as a proud child of Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Brown's sacrifice," Bolden told those attending the memorial in the academy's chapel.
Bolden, who graduated from the academy 15 years after Brown, said he knew no one who would claim to have a tougher first year at the school than Brown.
"While I had my own difficulties gaining admission to the academy in 1964, Wesley Brown's 1949 graduation and the legacy he left behind helped paved the way for me and so many others," Bolden said.
The number of minority students at the academy has increased significantly over the years. The graduating class of 2012, for example, had 277 minority students out of 1,099.
Those gathered recalled a friendly and persistent man who endured poor treatment by classmates with resilience and grace, well before the dawning of the civil rights' struggle against racial discrimination.
Brown lived alone at the academy during his four years so he wouldn't have to burden roommates with residing with the school's only black student, said Kerwin Miller, a 1975 academy graduate who spoke at the service.
"What he did for us is so much greater than what we could do for him," said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations. "He showed us that one person can make a difference."
Brown was the sixth African-American student to enter the academy and the first to graduate. He ranked 370th out of nearly 800 midshipmen in his class.
Janie Mines, who graduated in 1980, described Brown as an inspiring person who continued to take a keen interest in the academy throughout his life. "He was a constant figure who did so much to contribute to our well-being," Mines said of the Baltimore native.
Brown's son, Wesley Brown Jr., played "Amazing Grace" at the service before a school portrait of his father set up on an easel.
Brown's family is donating to the academy his class ring and his Reef Points book, which was issued to him when he entered the academy in 1945. Reef Points is the official handbook for midshipmen, outlining basic information and the academy's mission and history.
At the academy, Brown ran varsity track and cross country and was a cross-country teammate of former President Jimmy Carter — also a midshipman in that era.
Brown went on to a 20-year career with the Navy. He helped build houses in Hawaii, roads in Liberia, facilities in the Philippines and a seawater conversion plant in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
In 2008, the Naval Academy built the Wesley Brown Field House to accommodate physical education classes as well as the academy's athletic programs.