Civil Rights Trailblazer Cmdr. Carlton Skinner Honored in Guam

Undated photo of Cmdr. Carlton Skinner aboard the USS Sea Cloud along with several African American crewmembers.
Undated photo of Cmdr. Carlton Skinner aboard the USS Sea Cloud along with several African American crewmembers.

By The Maritime Executive 07-27-2019 06:41:43

A new U.S. Coast Guard building in Guam is being dedicated to Carlton Skinner, WWII veteran and the first civilian governor of Guam.

U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Karl Shultz, the commandant of the Coast Guard, presided over the groundbreaking of the new Cmdr. Carlton Skinner building at Naval Base Guam, last week. The building will support three new Fast Response Cutters replacing the two 110-foot Island Class cutters currently stationed in Guam.

Skinner was an advocate for greater self-rule for the people of the territory. Guam was under military-control since the U.S. had taken it from Spain during the Spanish-American War. During an interview in 1970 with James A. Oestele for the John F. Kennedy Library History Program, Skinner stated his view on how he felt concerning self-rule in the Pacific.

"I don't have the precise date…. But the Navy had ruled these islands continuously ever since, and in my opinion, the people were denied their basic civil rights by being under military rule, various aspects of that, not the least of which was that they had no legislative bodies with legislative powers," said Skinner. Skinner was a part of the drafting process for the Guam Organic Act of 1950, the constitution of Guam and in breaking the chain of military rule. 

This was not the first time he was a trailblazer for civil rights. During World War II, Skinner was the executive officer aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Northland (WPG 49) as it patrolled off the coast of Greenland. It was his job to evaluate and recommend service members under his command for advancement.

At the time, the U.S. military segregated African-Americans and limited them to specific rates aboard ships. Skinner recalled in the interview with Oestele, a particular African-American steward's mate who served under him.

In Skinner's words, this steward was a genius with diesel motors. Skinner said he would spend all his free time in the engine room, studying motors and their manuals, and desired to be a motor machinist's mate. The rate was prohibited to African-Americans at the time.

"It seems to me very logical that he should be, and I had him examined for this and recommend him to headquarters, and headquarters sent back that he could not be because he was [African-American]," said Skinner. "This irritated me; it infuriated me. I had him re-examined, and appealed, and finally he was rated as a motor machinist's mate."

Skinner went on to discuss how this situation made him view the bigger problem of racial segregation in the Coast Guard and Navy. When the cutter returned from Greenland, he recommended to the commandant of the Coast Guard a program be created for the inclusion of African-Americans in the general ratings at sea.

This effort was the birth of the USS Sea Cloud (IX-99) experiment. Skinner received orders to become the executive officer of the Sea Cloud, a Navy weather ship, in 1943. He was later made the ships commanding officer, and began overseeing desegregation of the vessel with African-American sailors filling general rating roles. Within a few months, there were over 50 African-Americans assigned to the ship.

The experiment to deliberately desegregate an American warship was a first. Skinner had asked for no special treatment or publicity as the cutter fulfilled its roles without incident, proving the process should and could work.

With Skinner's history in mind it is fitting that, 76 years after the Sea Cloud experiment began, the building now bearing his name will provide support for two cutters named after minorities who broke through prejudicial barriers in their time. The Fast Response Cutters Oliver Henry (WPC-1140), Myrtle Hazard (WPC-1139) and Frederik Hatch (WPC-1143) are scheduled to arrive in Guam over the next three years.

Oliver Henry is recognized as the first African-American to successfully make the transfer from steward's mate to motor machinist's mate and may have been the steward's mate Skinner had referred to in his interview, as they both served aboard the Northland together during the Greenland patrol.

Myrtle Hazard is considered the first active-duty female Coast Guard service member. She served as an electricians mate in 1918, and while women had served in several different capacities to the precursor services of the Coast Guard such as lighthouse keepers, she was the first enlisted female service member in the Service.

Vincent Patton, who served as the master chief petty officer of the Coast Guard from 1998 to 2002, stated Skinner was a leading figure in integrating the U.S. military during an interview with the publication SFGate in 2004. He also said Skinner had received little credit for it. "But then he wasn't interested in getting a lot of notice, and Mr. Skinner said all along this wasn't about creating a social experiment… but about putting people in the right job," said Patton.

The Coast Guard remains committed to the concept of diversity all these years after Skinner began his time on the Sea Cloud. Recently, the commandant has made diversity within the Coast Guard a top priority. One of Shultz's primary directives is to recruit and retain an inclusive and diverse workforce that reflects the American public the Coast Guard serves.