The Golden Thirteen: Collective Intelligence at Work

The U.S. Navy had a long history of limiting the roles of African Americans to positions where they would not come into contact with White sailors. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting ethnic and racial discrimination in the defense industry, the Navy eventually opened up its ranks to those of color.

The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy Adlai Stevenson, began a training course for 16 African-American enlistees. The Navy didn’t like the pressure to train African-American officers and made an effort to ensure their failure. The normal 16-week training was reduced to 8 weeks.

In previous training classes, officer candidates were known to be very competitive. That was not the case with this class. They identified subject matter specialists in the different subject areas and began to teach each other. They were driven to prove the Navy wrong, and that became their motivation to succeed. Today we would call their efforts as developing collective intelligence.

When they were tested, all 16 passed. In fact, the scores of the 16 officer candidates exceeded that of any class ever trained by the Navy. They were required to retake the test due to the disbelief that African Americans could score higher than previous all-white classes. They scored even higher on the retest.

Of the 16 sailors in the training class, 12 were commissioned as officers and one other was made a chief warrant officer. They were called the Golden Thirteen. No reason was ever given to the three men who were not chosen to be officers. Perhaps the Navy didn’t want to see that the percentage of officers from the class exceeded that of the white classes.

The Navy would still not accept African Americans on combat ships so they were assigned non-combat duty. When the war was over, most of the 13 returned to civilian duty but 3 remained in service and reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Today the training center where they were first united is called the Golden Thirteen. All of the 13 have now passed away.

The U.S. military has benefitted greatly from the example set by the Golden Thirteen. African Americans play prominent roles at the highest levels of all branches of the military. Working together the Golden 13 opened up hopes for any American who wants to serve our country.

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“If you get the dirty end of the stick, sharpen it and turn it into a useful tool.” – Colin Powell

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