A look at Lawrence Chambers — the oldest Black US Naval Academy graduate

Seventy years ago, a young DC native blazed trails in Annapolis for today’s minority naval officers.

Retired Rear Admiral Lawrence Chambers is the oldest living African American graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Chambers, who graduated in 1952, is only the second African American to graduate from the Academy and the first to achieve flag rank.

Retired Rear Admiral Lawrence Chambers is the oldest living African American graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. (Courtesy Kerwin Miller)

What was it like for an African American midshipman in the late 1940s and early 1950s?

Chambers says back then, “I was a loner. I didn’t know who I could trust, who was with me or who was against me.”

But, he says the Naval Academy has changed dramatically since those days.

“When I see the number of us who are here now, it’s beautiful,” Chambers says.

After graduation, Chambers pursued his dream of becoming a Naval Aviator. However, he says not much has changed in roughly 68 years.

“There have only been two of us who have been commanders of aircraft carriers,” he says.

The aviator played a prominent role during the Vietnam War as captain of the USS Midway in 1975.

He made the unprecedented decision to push several expensive UH-1 helicopters overboard to make room for a South Vietnamese Air Force major to land his Cessna. The decision saved the pilot and his family.

Following his promotion to rear admiral, Chambers served as commander of Carrier Strike Group Three and Interim Commander of Carrier Strike Group Four later.

He wrapped up a stellar naval career as vice commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, retiring in 1984. Then, he became director of program development at System Development Corporation.

Chambers, born in Virginia in 1929 and valedictorian of his class at Dunbar High School in D.C., turns 93 on June 10th. He says the key to his longevity has been running.

“I ran 10 miles a day for 30, maybe 40 years,” he says, noting that he may have been doing too much. “The Marines kind of hit me upside the head and said you only need three; either you run it, crawl it,” but he insists exercise is the key.


This is part of WTOP’s continuing coverage of people making a difference from our community authored by Stephanie Gaines-Bryant. Read more of that coverage.

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