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The U.S. Coast Guard Academy honored its first black graduate, Merle Smith, in a special ceremony for their Pioneer Award. Merle Smith graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 1966. Smith entered the academy in 1962 behind its first black cadet, Jarvis Wright, who had been accepted in 1955 but dropped out early for medical reasons.

The struggle for African-Americans in the Coast Guard started with an observation from President John F. Kennedy during his inaugural parade. There were no blacks in the rows of cadets that surrounded the President. Then came Merle Smith into the academy one year later.

When there were dances held, Smith and Wright were required to choose dance partners from the white female cadets attending; no black females would be allowed. In addition, Merle Smith’s appearance was very fair-skinned and he was often mistaken for a white cadet.