Coast Guard History

The Legacy of African American History in the USCG

by Kasey Zronek

On 26 September 1918, 111 Coast Guardsmen aboard the USCGC Tampa were killed when the ship was blown up by a torpedo off the coast of Europe. This represented the loss of approximately 2% of the Coast Guard’s men, the largest loss of life (by percentage) of a service in a single incident during World War I. James Jenkins Adams, an African American Cabin Steward, was one of the men killed.

On 17 January 1920, the Coast Guard commissioned former Navy Submarine Chaser SC-268 as Coast Guard Cutter Adams, to honor Cabin Steward James Jenkins Adams, who died aboard the Tampa. But…how could this be? It was 1920, and Adams was an African American. The only way he could serve in the Coast Guard was as a steward or a cook. He couldn’t even enlist as a regular seaman. And they named a ship after him?

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USCGC Tampa (Image Courtesy of Naval History & Heritage Command)

While conducting research for our museum’s African American history exhibit, I didn’t expect to have this question. I just wanted to learn about the Coast Guard’s involvement in World War I. Instead, I found records that made me question what I thought I knew about Coast Guard history.

I assumed the first African American honored with a cutter was one of the heroes we talk about every year. Captain Michael “Hell Roaring Mike” Healy famously commanded the cutter Bear as part of the Revenue Cutter Service in the 1880s. The USCGC Healy (WAGB-20) is a polar icebreaker named for him. Alex Haley was the Coast Guard’s first and only Chief Journalist during the 1940s. USCGC Alex Haley (WMEC-39) is a former Navy ship recommissioned as a Coast Guard cutter to honor him. The two were named within months of one another…in 1999. Almost 80 years after the commissioning of the Adams.

Is it possible that the first African American to be honored with a cutter wasn’t one of these men? Could Adams have been the first one bestowed with this honor, almost 100 years ago? From the records I’ve seen, it is not only possible, but likely. Adams wasn’t a captain or a trailblazer, but he was a hero.

He was born in Key West, Florida, around 1895. His parents were immigrants from the Bahamas. His father worked as a cigar maker to support their family of six. Adams enlisted in the Revenue Cutter Service when he turned 18 in 1913. His service kept him mostly close to home, and in May 1917, he married Myrtle Chipchase, a long-time neighbor. With the world at war, the couple didn’t have much time together. In July, his ship left Key West to be outfitted for war. In September 1917, it sailed for Europe. A year later, after exemplary wartime service, the Tampa and its crew completed what would be their last convoy assignment.

111 Coast Guardsmen perished aboard the Tampa on 26 September 1918, including Cabin Steward James Jenkins Adams. Though their lives were short, the legacy of their service lives on in Coast Guard history.

Kasey Zronek is the Education Director at the Virginia Beach Maritime Museum located in Virginia Beach, Virginia