February is National African-American History Month, where we recognize the heritage, achievements and contributions African-Americans have made to our nation and to our Navy.
We celebrate the achievements of African American pioneers like Adm. Michelle Howard, the highest-ranking black woman to serve in any branch of the military; the Navy's first African-American admiral, Samuel Gravely Jr.; Ensign Jesse Brown, the Navy's first black aviator; first African-American Navy Nurse Phyllis Dailey and Seaman Robert Blake, the first African-American to physically receive the Medal of Honor.
Their history is Navy history. Their history is American history.
All Hands Magazine profiles three African-American Navy leaders who are continuing that legacy today. Retired Fleet Master Chief April Beldo, Rear Adm. John V. Fuller and Sharon Smoot, an executive director at Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), have overcome adversity and broke barriers, all while leading Sailors.
Fleet Master Chief April D. Beldo
Retired Fleet Master Chief April D. Beldo enlisted in the Navy in 1983. Beldo's initial plan was to serve four years, learn self-discipline, save money and then return to college. Little did she know that from the day she stepped off the bus at Recruit Training Center in Orlando, Florida, that her career would span more than three decades and break barriers.
"Since 1983, I have seen [the Navy] evolve — that's not to say we don't need to continue to work on our inclusion and diversity organization," said Beldo of the Navy's diverse workforce. "I believe when we tap in to including different ideas, backgrounds and ways of thought, we make ourselves a better warfighting team. We've come a long way since 1983."
After serving as an aviation maintenance administrationman with various squadrons, Beldo was selected for the command master chief (CMC) program, graduating with honors from the Senior Enlisted Academy. She later became both the first African-American female CMC of an aircraft carrier, and the first African-American female CMC of Recruit Training Command. In her final tour, she served as the Manpower, Personnel, Training and Education fleet master chief.
"Realistically this isn't an easy job," Beldo said, speaking to those who are thinking of enlisting in the Navy. "We ask a lot of each Sailor that enlists into this organization. But the payback, the feeling of being something, doing something, making a difference in your country ... there is no other organization that you get that. It's tough and we're going to challenge you. But the pride you feel when you complete those challenges, there's nothing that even stacks up. And that's the Navy."
Beldo, who retired Jan. 18, 2017 after 34 years, said she wants to be remembered as more than the first African-American woman to hold certain positions. She also wants to be remembered as a good Sailor, a good master chief: "If you can look somebody in the eye and you can say when you think of Master Chief Beldo, 'Fair, consistent, honest, knew what the Navy core values meant and practiced the core attributes,' that's all I want."
Rear Adm. John V. Fuller
Rear Adm. John V. Fuller, a self-proclaimed Army brat, spent his entire life in and around the military. Both of Fuller's parents served in the Army - his father was a colonel - as did two of his brothers. But a young John Fuller wanted to walk a slightly different path. He earned his commission from the United States Naval Academy in 1987.
"I am the son of parents who went through the entire civil rights process," Fuller reminisced. "And I've lived in the South, so I have seen the things that they have gone through. Because of my parents and the way they were, I also saw how to work through that. My entire goal is to let my work, the content of my character speak for myself."
His career does indeed speak for itself. His career has seen him serving on surface combatants to the LCS, Surface Warfare Division, as the chief engineer on USS Kauffman (FFG 59) and the commanding officer on USS Mason (DDG 87). His current assignment is commander, Navy Region Hawaii Commander, Naval Surface Group, Middle Pacific in Hawaii.
"It comes down to the content of the individual character, their preparation and their talent and the combination of the two," Fuller said. "I see that the world is starting to grow in that direction. We are learning to value individual's performance, and we're learning to value a more diverse selection of where those people come from."
Then there's Sharon Smoot, a senior executive service member with NAVSEA who supervises naval shipyards and the supervisors of shipbuilding. Smoot began her career with the Department of the Navy in 1986, first as an electrical engineer at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and over the next 15 years moved into leadership and planning.
Smoot grew up in an Air Force family and spent much of her early childhood overseas, which somewhat sheltered her from the violence and prejudice of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s. That changed when she and her family moved to Portsmouth, Virginia in the late 1970s.
Smoot was determined to forge her own path, regardless of her color or gender. Nothing would hold the lithe, 5-foot woman in heels back from achieving her goals.
Smoot was told she was too small to be an engineer, and both her high school counselor and a college professor didn't believe women belonged in engineering or at Virginia Tech. She enrolled at Virginia Tech and studied engineering anyway.
Smoot, honored in 2010 as the Black Engineer of the Year for Professional Achievement in Government, said our differences make us who we are, the strongest Navy in the world.
"I like hearing our leadership talk about the values that we all bring to the table and acknowledgment that all of us individually have," said Smoot. "If you can embrace those differences and see what they give to the whole team and what strength comes from pulling from what all individuals have to offer, there's no way we won't continue throughout my lifetime and generations to come to be the greatest Navy."
These three Navy leaders are just a small example of our diverse fighting force.
Embrace your differences, your culture, and your experience. What you bring to the Navy makes us the finest Navy in the world.
Editor's note: To view video profiles of retired Fleet Master Chief Beldo, Rear Adm. Fuller and Ms. Smoot, view the original printing of this article here.