Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Up Through the Ranks: Dave Smith battled decades of racism to reach the top of the enlisted ranks.

Illustration by Ryan Spahr.

Illustration by Ryan Spahr.

“When I was in the Navy aboard the submarine in the 1970s, I was a fly in the buttermilk.”

That’s how Master Chief (ret.) Dave Smith—employing the colorful language of his native South—describes his struggles as he rose through the ranks to become one of the first black master chief petty officers in the Navy, the highest rank for enlisted personnel.

Fortunately, Smith’s upbringing steeled him for the challenges ahead. He grew up in Selma, Ala., under what he describes as “very prejudicial conditions.” Despite the segregation around him, his parents always encouraged education, achievement and hard work, he said. Determined, he refused to let institutional and casual racism deter him from his goals.

“I took every opportunity offered to me, and that worked out for me,” he said.

Smith tells his life story humbly, without a trace of resentment. He shrugs off the most difficult portions of his life story by saying, “That’s just the way it was back then.”


Into the Sunlight

Like many black youth in the 1940s and ‘50s, Smith lived a rather itinerant life, splitting his time between his extended family in the city and the country, while also helping his father on the farm.

As a high school senior, he read encyclopedias in his spare time, often tutored his classmates and spent a lot of time in the one-room country library. While in Chicago with family, he also joined the swim team.

“I was a fancy diver,” he said. “It probably helped plant the seed for joining the Navy.”

If swimming planted the seed, a family member set it into the sunlight.

“My cousin came home from serving in the South Pacific,” Smith said. “He looked sharp in his white uniform, and he flashed six months’ worth of pay. All the girls liked him. He said I could spend 20 years in the Navy and retire on 50 percent of that pay. So I joined the Navy, too.”

Smith scored well on his tests, especially in electronics. He pounced on the opportunity to work on the computers that launched missiles.

“I didn’t know what a fire controlman was at first. I thought it was a fireman,” he said, referring to his job operating and maintaining weapons systems.

When he reported aboard his first submarine, he gave his orders to the topside watch, who said, “I never saw a black fire controlman. What’s this Navy coming to?”

Then, in 1962, thanks to his good test scores in boot camp, someone offered Smith the chance to become a submarine sailor. “It was an extra $55 a month, so I said yes,” he said.

He quickly discovered just how bad racism was in the Navy.

“Back then, they only assigned one black per submarine,” he said. “There was always the fear of conspiracy whenever two or more blacks got together. We used to joke that the only way we could get a good game of bid whist going was to pull four subs into dry dock.”

So, the ship’s complement was 125 white men and Smith.

“And the guys from the South had a way of letting you know they expected you to stay in your place,” he said.


Uphill Battle

Throughout his career, Smith took advantage of opportunities whenever he could. He went to the schools and took the training no one else wanted. Eventually, the ship’s chief allowed him a chance to take advantage of more popular classes.

Over the coming years, he began to rise through the ranks, but constantly had to deal with racist situations, which the chain of command did little to correct.

“Because of that, getting my men to take me seriously was an uphill battle,” he said.

Putting his love of reading into play, Smith became familiar with the Navy’s rulebooks. Soon, people were coming to him to ask how things operated. He also applied his love of learning to become a trainer for four years for the Polaris Mark 84 Polaris Missile System.

In 1978, Smith landed a job as a street recruiter and worked his way up to chief recruiter in 14 months, supervising 135 recruiters in central Pennsylvania.

“At the time I took over, the station was ranked last out of 41 in the nation,” he said. “We were able to improve the district to first place.”

In the early 1970s, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt Jr. took over as chief of naval operations, and the most overt racism began to abate. Awhile later, Smith became a rarity until that time—a black master chief petty officer, the Navy’s most senior enlisted member who serves as an adviser to the chief on issues of enlisted personnel.

With Smith’s advice and help, the Navy instituted a fairer promotional system, better distribution of minorities in the ranks and greater availability in the exchanges of products wanted and needed by black personnel.

Today, Smith holds a place of respect in the community, still serving and leading with presence and authority. He is a minister at Greater Zion Baptist Church and vice president of public relations at Toastmasters of Camp Curtin.

Smith recently met a fellow black master chief serving in Mechanicsburg.

“There was a time when blacks were not permitted to move into positions like that,” he said. “He thanked me for personally trailblazing through the enlisted ranks.”

Continue Reading