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
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
"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
"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
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
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
Reason wrote on the paper, "I will do everything in my
power to improve my class standing by 20 numbers," and
"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
"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
"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
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
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."
"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
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
Adm. J. Paul Reason and his wife, Dianne. U.S.