U.S. Department of Defense Header Image (click to return to U.S. Department of Defense homepage)
Search DefenseLink.mil
Oct. 25, 2006  War on Terror   Transformation   News Products   Press Resources   Images   Websites   Contact Us 
American Forces Press Service News Article

Reason Is Navy's First Black Four-Star Admiral

By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
	WASHINGTON -- It took the Navy 135 years from the date 
the Union Navy began enlisting African Americans in 1861 to 
promote a black man to four-star admiral. 
	He's Adm. J. Paul Reason, 56, a 6-foot-5, Washingtonian 
whose credentials include serving as commander of a 
destroyer, a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser, and an 
aircraft carrier battle group. A former naval base 
commander, surface warfare commander and military aide to 
two presidents, he's now commander of the Atlantic Fleet in 
Norfolk, Va. 
	Reason today commands an armada of more than 190 
warships, more than 1,300 aircraft and more than 120,000 
people at 17 major naval bases. That's about half the entire 
U.S. Navy. 
	"The Union Navy began enlisting African Americans as 
early as September 1861, well before the Emancipation 
Proclamation," Reason said in a Feb. 5, 1997, speech here at 
the U.S. Navy Memorial in recognition of Black History 
	"These African-Americans served as stewards, cooks and 
powder boys," Reason noted. "By 1862, following an 
observation of the performance of these stewards, cooks and 
powder boys, the ranks of regular seamen were opened to 
African Americans. Thirty-thousand African Americans -- 25 
percent of the Union's naval enlisted strength -- served in 
the racially integrated Navy of the United States."
	In addition to being the Navy's first African-American 
four-star admiral, Reason is part of a history-making trio 
of black four-star military officers. The three military 
departments for the first time have four-star African-
American officers on active duty at the same time. The other 
two are Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson, commander of the Army 
Materiel Command in Alexandria, Va., and Gen. Lloyd W. "Fig" 
Newton, commander of the Air Education and Training Command 
at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas.
	Reason is a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, while Newton 
was commissioned through college ROTC and Wilson, through 
Officer Candidate School after six years as an enlisted man.
	"I totally attribute my success to those who have gone 
before me -- all minorities," Reason said. "People who have 
broken down barriers by showing others they're capable of 
doing the expected task, that they can perform and it has 
nothing to do with color of skin or ethnicity -- nothing to 
do with anything other than a person's capabilities."
	Graduating in 1965, Reason said his interest in the 
Navy probably stems from his childhood loves -- fishing, 
crabbing, canoeing, rowing, swimming, frolicking on the 
beach or just sitting on a pier -- "anything having to do 
with water."
	"Born and reared in Washington, D.C., I've always had 
some interchange with the Chesapeake Bay," he said. "As I 
came through high school, I looked very closely at 
affiliating with the Navy and letting them participate in my 
	He attended three colleges before being accepted at the 
Naval Academy.
	Reason comes from a family of educators. His parents 
were both educators. His father was a professor of romance 
languages who later became director of university libraries 
at Howard University here for more than 40 years. His mother 
was a high school science biology and chemistry teacher and 
college professor.
	Reason's sister specialized in international area 
studies and wrote travel handbooks for DoD personnel 
traveling to foreign countries in the 1950s and 1960s. "She 
died at age 50 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis," 
the admiral noted. "Her husband and two daughters are 
	The admiral and his wife, Dianne, have two children: a 
daughter, Rebecca, an accountant, and a son, Lt. Joseph Paul 
Reason Jr., a 1990 Naval Academy graduate. Reason doesn't 
have any grandchildren, but said, "I'm ready!"
	Reason credits Adm. Hyman Rickover, the "father" of the 
nuclear Navy, for helping him succeed. He said Rickover put 
the first nuclear-powered submarine to sea about 10 years 
earlier. The United States had also built the nuclear-
powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, cruiser USS Long 
Beach and several nuclear submarines. 

	"I applied for a program involving very intense 
engineering for operation and maintenance of ships propelled 
by nuclear reactors," said Reason, who holds a master's 
degree in computer systems management. Rickover had 
developed that program. 
	Reason remembers well his testy first meeting with 
then-Capt. Rickover in 1964. Rickover was interviewing 
applicants for his propulsion school. He was intimidating, 
but Reason stood his ground.
	Rickover challenged Reason noting he should have had 
better grades at the Naval Academy. "He said, 'You've had a 
lot of education, just about a straight-A student coming out 
of high school. How come you're not standing at the top of 
your class?'" Reason said. "I said others study harder than 
I do. I try to do other things as well as study. 
	"'Well, you may join the Navy nuclear power program if 
you improve your class standing by 20 numbers,'" he 
remembers Rickover saying.
	Reason, in his last semester before graduation, told 
Rickover he couldn't promise or swear to raise his class 
standing because if he and everyone in front of him got 
straight-As, his relative position wouldn't change -- 
increasing his standing was beyond his control.
	Rickover responded: "You've got to do it my way or 
you're out of here." 
	"He threw me out of his office and put me in a small 
room to think about it -- for hours!" Reason recalled. "Late 
that night I was called in by Adm. Rickover's deputy, who 
said, 'Have you had a chance to consider what the admiral 
wants you to do? He wants you to sign this statement: "I 
swear that I will increase my class standings 20 numbers 
before graduation."'"
	Reason wrote on the paper, "I will do everything in my 
power to improve my class standing by 20 numbers," and 
signed it. 
	"This isn't acceptable," the deputy said. He had the 
secretary retype the original. 
	"I'm sorry, I will not sign this oath because it's not 
within my power to deliver," Reason told the deputy.
	"He threw me out," Reason said.
	At 6:45 the next morning, the list of those accepted 
for Rickover's nuclear program was posted. Reason was No. 3 
on the list.
	Reason speaks fondly of his professional and personal 
relationship with the late Adm. Mike Boorda, former chief of 
naval operations. 
	"Admiral Boorda was a very dear friend and an 
exceptionally fine naval officer," Reason said. "The Navy is 
better off for his having served with us for as long as he 
	The two met in 1981 when Reason went to Norfolk to take 
command of USS Bainbridge, a guided missile destroyer. Their 
mutual respect for each other's abilities and a lasting 
friendship blossomed during a voyage to West Africa and the 
	"We got to know West Africa and each other quite well," 
Reason said. "A bond formed, first a professional bond, then 
a personal bond. He was the most capable naval officer I 
ever went to sea with. He knew how to do everything. 
	"But at the same time, I was a better engineer because 
I'd spent most of my time running propulsion plants in 
cruisers and aircraft carriers," Reason said. "With his 
operational expertise and my ability to solve engineering 
problems, it was a very professionally rewarding cruise to 
West Africa, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea."
	Gone are the days when black sailors were only allowed 
to serve as stewards, cooks and powder boys. 
	"Service in the armed forces of the United States of 
America today is an equal opportunity for advancement," 
Reason said. "This is real equal opportunity. The Navy 
promotes people based on the score you make on an exam that 
everybody in your job title takes on the same day at the 
same time worldwide. 
	"You compete with people who went to the same schools, 
have gone through the same training and have the same 
manuals you have," he said. "So, if you're diligent, you can 
be promoted on your own merit. There are not a whole lot of 
places in this country, or anywhere else in the world, where 
you really have a visible merit promotion system. That's 
equal opportunity."
	"There's always something exciting to do in the 
military," he said. "These opportunities don't exist in the 
little community where you grew up, whether it's a 
neighborhood in a big city or a small town. But when you 
affiliate with the armed forces of the United States, your 
horizons get broadened.
	"Military service, for those who can adjust to the 
lifestyle, flourish in the lifestyle, enjoy the lifestyle, 
offers a wonderful band of opportunities," he said. "Those 
opportunities run the full gamut. It's not just financial 
stability, it's cultural exposure, international travel, 
doing things that the common man never gets the chance to 
do. Sometimes they're risky, but almost always exciting."
	Reason said veterans can use their military experience 
to help others assimilate the same factors of life they have 
	"When you've had a successful tour in the military, 
you've learned the value of education and training," he 
noted. "You've been taught how to do something. You've 
learned and put that learning into practice. So you know how 
to do something that's positive, fruitful and contributory 
to a team effort. By the same token, you know how to do a 
job, how to complete something you've started, how to be 
assigned a task and come to the logical conclusion so you 
know if it's done properly." 
	Veterans should share those factors with young African 
Americans in the communities to which they return, Reason 
	"They need to teach youngsters how to bring things to 
closure and how to deliver a product," the admiral said. "If 
you can do that, you can hold a job -- any job -- and become 
financially independent." 
	In 1976, during the Ford administration, Reason was 
selected to be the naval aide in the White House. He became 
President Ford's military aide shortly before Christmas 1976 
and stayed on the job after President Jimmy Carter was 
inaugurated on Jan. 20, 1977. He held the position until 
1979 and then went back to sea as executive officer of the 
USS Mississippi. 
	Reason said thousands of crew members over the years 
have made him look good as a commander. "My payback is, I 
represent them, I represent sailors the best way I know 
how," he said. "My test for everything I do, for every 
decision I make is, is it good for sailors? If I can't prove 
it's good for sailors, we shouldn't be spending taxpayers' 
money. And we don't -- as long as it's my decision."

image "I totally attribute my success to those who have gone before me -- all minorities," said Navy Adm. J. Paul Reason, the Navy's first African-American four-star admiral. He commands the Atlantic Fleet, headquartered in Norfolk, Va. Rudi Williams

image President Jimmy Carter leaves the White House with his military aide, then-Lt. Cmdr. J. Paul Reason, who would serve as an aide for two years before returning to sea duty in 1979. Today, Adm. J. Paul Reason commands the Atlantic Fleet, based in Norfolk, Va. He is the Navy's first African-American four-star admiral. U.S. Navy photo

image Adm. J. Paul Reason and his wife, Dianne. U.S. Navy photo

Updated: 14 Jan 2003
 Site Map   Privacy & Security Notice   About DoD   External Link Disclaimer   Web Policy   About DefenseLINK   FirstGov.gov