As President Kennedy watched his inaugural parade in 1961, he noticed that there was not one African American in the Coast Guard marching contingent. He made a mental note to do something about it. The next year Merle Smith entered the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. He earned his degree in 1966, becoming the first Black graduate of the academy.
Smith went on to serve in Vietnam where he commanded a patrol boat and was awarded a Bronze Star. Upon his return to the United States, Smith earned a law degree at George Washington University. He served as an attorney for Electric Boat, the submarine manufacturer in New London. He has also served as an adjunct professor at the academy.
The Coast Guard Academy honored Smith this past week with its Pioneer Award.
Today, Blacks make up about 5 percent of the cadets at the Coast Guard Academy.