[Military/1st Black Midshipman]. S. B. Luce. SEAMANSHIP: Compiled from Various Authorities, and Illustrated with Numerous Original and Select Designs, for the Use of the United States Naval Academy. NY: D. van Nostrand, 1868, Fourth Edition. Thick 8vo. [title leaf], [v]-vi, [iii]-iv, vii-xv, [i], -667, [i], ads -32 pp. 1st Preface leaf mis-bound after 2nd Preface leaf. 91 plates (2 folding), numbered “1” to “88”, plus 1 unnumbered plate (at p92) and plates 51A and 51B. Plates 66 and 67 mis-bound at pp279 and 284, Plate 79 at p392. Recently re-cased with dark navy blue leather and red labels, preserving contemporary cloth covers. Corners of covers frayed and rounded, covers have surface wear. Losses to contemp endpapers. The digit “3” in “1873” in the inscription is mostly obscured. Loss to front flyleaf (below the inscription). External and internal dampstaining, Minor foxing throughout. Wear to edge of prelims, first few dozen text leaves, a few plates, ads, and occasionally edges elsewhere. Marginal tears to some preliminary leaves. Nick to lower edge of pp157-160, tear to headline of pp249-250.
Title page, upper margin of p13, and the verso of the rear flyleaf are signed “Jas Conyers.”
The front flyleaf is inscribed “Cadet Midn. J Henry Conyers/ U S Naval Academy/ Annapolis Md./ June 13, 1873… Written on board US Ship Santee/ Don’t give up the ship’/ Lawrence.” The Santee was a wooden frigate used to blockade the Gulf Coast during the Civil War. James Lawrence is remembered for ordering his men “don’t give up the ship!”shortly before Lawrence died of his wounds.
James Henry Conyers (b. 10-24-1855 in Charleston, SC) was the first African American to be admitted as a cadet (midshipman) at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and reported to the Naval Academy on September 21, 1872. His father was Peter Conyers, who possibly worked for Francis L. Cardozo. He was nominated to the Naval Academy by Robert Elliot (R-SC), then a member of the House of Representatives. Elliot, an African American who arrived in South Carolina in 1867, helped organize the state’s Republican Party affiliate, and was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1868, where he helped defeat a literacy test and poll tax proposal (Robert J. Schneller, “Breaking the Color Barrier,” New York University Press, (2005), p8. Elliot then became the first black to serve in Congress (House of Representatives from 1871-74, see Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol II, 1888, p331). Elliot was forced to abandon his political career soon after Army troops withdrew at the end of Reconstruction.
For a dorm mate at Annapolis, Conyers was assigned to another midshipman of low social status “variously described as a ‘bootblack’ or a ‘street tough’ from New York City…” (Schneller, "Breaking the Color Barrier," New York University Pr., , p16). Almost immediately, Conyers suffered repeated beatings at the hands of racist midshipmen—abuse that went well beyond the Academy’s infamous hazing problem, and was disproportionately perpetrated by the Academy’s underclassmen (plebes).
The abuse attracted a mixture of sympathetic and unsympathetic media attention. On one occasion, three midshipmen, George Collamore, Albert Crittenden, and George Goodfellow, kicked and punched him, and threatened him with death if he reported the incident (Schneller, p16). The Baltimore American and Commercial Advertiser reported that on one occasion, he was attacked by a group of about 20 midshipmen; the attack was reportedly broken up by an officer with a drawn sword (Schneller, p17). A board meeting was called on Oct. 17, 1872 to investigate reports of physical and verbal abuse against Conyers by questioning upperclassmen. “The board believed most of the upperclassmen’s testimony but found ‘a want of frankness’ and ‘contradictions and evident desire to conceal what they knew’ among many of the plebes. Collamore, Crittenden, and Goodfellow denied any wrongdoing. William Winder never mentioned drawing his sword during the altercation on 11 October, nor did anyone else… The board recommended dismissing Collamore, Crittenden, Goodfellow, and Digges from the Academy…” –Schneller, p20. This was an extreme measure, especially given the Goodfellow family’s connections to Pres. Grant. The beatings continued, and on at least one occasion included throwing rocks and dirt at Conyers while he was swimming away from attackers (pp23-25). Those who did not actually attack Conyers physically created situations where he might reasonably commit infractions that would lead to dismissal (p30).
Conyers struggled to pass the Academy’s rigorous exams and at the annual examination held in May 1873. He was one of 35 midshipmen found deficient in mathematics and French, and was recommended to be discharged. He apparently retook the exams again fall, but resigned from the Academy on November 11, 1873 in lieu of dismissal. In September 1873, a second black midshipman (Alonzo Clifton McClennan) had been admitted. “Because of McClennan’s race and attitude, upperclassmen frequently reported him for infractions. McClennan began to accumulate demerits at an alarming rate. The extra duty imposed as punishment robbed him of time he might otherwise have spent studying…” –Schneller, p31.