The comparatively brief but historically significant U.S. Navy career of Lieutenant Commander Edward Swain Hope, who had been the highest-ranking African-American naval officer during World War II, came to an end when he was officially released from active duty.
Hope was born in 1901 in Atlanta. While his naval service did not actually take place until he was well into his 40s, Hope had first developed a strong interest in the possibilities of such a career much earlier in life. This youthful enthusiasm was specifically awakened by two experiences whereby he learned about compelling and high-drama maritime milestones.
The first of these experiences was a lecture given by a Navy lieutenant on the Great White Fleet, the popular nickname for a 1907-09 goodwill expedition of U.S. battleships around the world. This fleet had been dispatched by President Theodore Roosevelt in large part to showcase the U.S. Navy’s steadily growing strength and its blue-water capabilities.
Hope’s second formative experience occurred when he and an uncle paid a visit to one-time slave and Civil War hero Robert Smalls during a trip to Beaufort, South Carolina. As a slave laboring on the docks and wharves of Charleston, Smalls acquired a great love of the sea and formidable sailing skills. He also zealously wanted to be free, so in 1862 he commandeered a Confederate transport ship in Charleston harbor and used the vessel to take himself, his family, and several other slaves to freedom behind Union lines. Smalls’ bold escape and his considerable expertise as a sailor helped persuade President Abraham Lincoln to allow more African-Americans to serve in the military. Smalls was awarded a medal for his wartime heroism and he showed this medal to Hope during the young man’s visit.
Notwithstanding the powerful impression that each of these experiences made on Hope, his academic pursuits and first several decades of professional career choices proved to be decidedly non-maritime in nature. Hope graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta with an A.B. in science in 1923. He then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning a B.S. in civil engineering in 1925 and an M.S. in the same subject two years later.
After finishing up at MIT, Smalls worked first on highway construction on Long Island for the New York State Department of Public Works and then hydroelectric development in Brazil for a subsidiary of the Electric Bond & Share Company of New York. Starting in 1932, he worked at Howard University as its superintendent of buildings and grounds. Along with carrying out those job responsibilities, Hope also found time to earn an Ed.D. in personnel administration from the Teachers College of Columbia University in 1942.
With the U.S. fighting in World War II by this time, Hope’s long-deferred dreams of naval service were rekindled. The U.S. War Commission encouraged the military branches to provide African-Americans with equal opportunities and in particular the possibility of being commissioned as officers. In May 1944, Hope was sworn into the Navy as a lieutenant in the Civil Engineer Corps. After being promoted to lieutenant commander, Hope became not only the highest-ranking African-American naval officer during World War II but also the first African-American to serve as a Civil Engineer Corps officer.
Hope’s wartime assignments included serving as public works officer at the Manana Barracks at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This camp was one of the largest ones overseas primarily for African-Americans, and those sailors under Hope’s command there worked as stevedores on the Navy’s docks.
After being discharged from active duty with the Navy, Hope went back to Howard University and began a new career there as a professor of civil engineering. He eventually became chairman of the American University’s civil engineering department in Beirut. Hope also served in the Naval Reserve for a number of years. He died in 1991.
For more information on Edward Swain Hope, please check out https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/museums/seabee/explore/civil-engineer-corps-history/lcdr-edward-s–hope.html