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US Navy Mess Stewards Beneath the Glass CeilingDominique Saavedra Makes HistoryRiding the Rails: A Long, Hard Road to RespectDoris Miller, Ship's Cook, Third Class.  And Yes,  That's the Navy Cross on His Chest. Didn't Even Take Time to Remove His Apron

August 18th, 2016

Galley Slaves

BY Christian Ford

On August 2nd, Dominique Saavedra achieved something no other enlisted woman in the US Navy ever had — a faux silver badge of 1920s design was pinned above the left breast pocket of her fatigues.  Colloquially known as the “dolphins,” the coveted insignia can only worn by those who have qualified to serve aboard US submarines, an arduous and demanding path and one that, until 2015, had only been open to enlisted men.  So, hats off to Chief Saavedra and the other 37 women who made the Navy’s initial selection to pack their sea bags and head to Groton, Connecticut, home of the Submarine School.

Like every single other person crewing US submarines, she’s done time in the sub school’s infamous “wet trainer,” a simulated submarine compartment that fills with spurting, high pressure seawater, giving sailors a very real experience of how to save their ship and themselves.  It’s an understandable peculiarity of the submarine service that everyone on the crew is trained to handle damage in every compartment and system of the boat, in addition to their ordinary specialization which, in Chief Saavedra’s case, is Culinary Specialist.

As I wondered about what it must be like to be a Chief Culinary Specialist — that is, a cook — in the galley of a nuclear missile submarine such as the Michigan, I found myself distracted by a different thought.  It’s a fluke, I’m sure, that Chief Saavedra was first in line for her dolphins, but isn’t it rather odd that the first enlisted woman aboard US submarines is there to cook food for the crew?  Especially when you consider that for very many years of the twentieth century, the only place a black man could find a berth aboard a navy ship was in the very same role?

In the wake of the Civil War, the Navy had been more integrated; blacks could serve as regular enlisted sailors, up to the highest non-commissioned rank of Chief Petty Officer.  But in 1893, a “gentleman’s agreement” began to muster blacks out of the ranks of sailors.  The idea was to simply never replace black sailors who exited the service.  The 1907 voyage of the Great White Fleet ironically proved a temporary reprieve, because the Navy, desirous of intimidating a newly powerful Japan with an All-American image of power, replaced all Japanese and Filipino stewards aboard ship with blacks.  But by 1919, it was official.  If you were black, the Navy had no place for you.

That lasted for fourteen years, until there was a shortage of Filipino “mess stewards” (the preferred ethnicity, along with Guamians, rather creepily suggesting that they were trophies of the Navy’s triumph in the Spanish-American War).  Thus it was in 1932 that blacks could again enlist in the Navy, but solely as mess stewards and, adding insult, without proper insignia.  Their badge was a letter “C” atop four bars; the stewards called it the “moon and loaves of bread.”

In the rigorously segregationist Navy of the first half of the 20th Century, the only role for blacks was cooking, serving and cleaning.  It wasn’t glamorous, but it was coveted sea duty.  And I would imagine that being embedded in the rank hierarchy of the navy, a mess steward would at least have the comfort of knowing that they weren’t alone in being designated inferior.

But while the mess stewards may have inhabited the very bottom of the Navy hierarchy, they were everywhere, and so it is that they participated in every single engagement of the war, beginning with the very first, Pearl Harbor.   At the start of that day, a black Texan by the name of Doris Miller was an unremarkable third class mess attendant aboard the battleship West Virginia.  By the end of the day, he’d earned the Navy Cross for putting his boyhood squirrel hunting skills to use shooting at attacking planes and carrying his mortally wounded captain out of the burning wreckage of the bridge.

There was a pretty profound irony that existed for men like Miller; while they were the bottom of the social ladder at work, their work itself meant that they were riding high when back home in the communities they came from.  There was prestige to being a battleship sailor, however you came to the position, and in this, the Navy’s mess stewards were parallel to a larger and more famous tradition.

It was during the 1860s that George Pullman created the first sleeping car for railroads.  Pullman had a very specific plan; he wanted middle class customers to feel upper class when they were aboard and what better way to simulate upper classness than to provide servants?  Where would you find people with the right training and demeanor for this in the years immediately following the Civil War?  To Pullman, the answer was newly freed blacks.   His Pullman porters, as they were called, were exclusively black and they delivered brilliantly on his concept.  Pullman made a fortune, and the porters became legendary for their impeccable service.

For the porters themselves, it was a decidedly mixed blessing.  On one hand, being a porter was one of the best jobs blacks could aspire to in that era.  There was considerable cultural cachet, professional pride and respect; the Pullman porter was the master of his one-car domain.  It’s not an overstatement to say that the existence of Pullman porters created the black middle class, and the ranks of those who did the job eventually came to include both Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Malcolm X.

But the underbelly of life as a porter was entirely lacking in glamor. The wages they earned were far from a living wage, leaving them dependent on tips.   The hours porters slept were subtracted from their pay, they were responsible for the cost of items stolen by passengers, they paid for their own uniforms and they even had to fork over for the shoe polish they used on passengers’ shoes.  Most galling, passengers tended to call all of them “George,” after Pullman’s name, continuing a southern tradition where enslaved blacks were called by their master’s name.

The Pullman Porter had, in the words of journalist Thomas Fleming, “the best job in his community and the worst on the train.”

Over time — over a lot of time — the shit job of the being a porter transformed into a real job.  The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters became the first black labor union (the existing Order of Sleeping Car Conductors wouldn’t admit blacks) and over the decades, real advances in working conditions and wages were extracted from the company.  Perhaps the most significant result of the struggle of the porters is that they were seasoned and ready when the larger struggle came into view; it was a union organizer who bailed Rosa Parks out of jail and selected her as the face of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.  Other union men were instrumental in building the civil rights movement and organizing 1963’s March on Washington.

So what are we to make of this long tradition of breaking the glass ceiling via “menial” work?  We’ve got a black president in the white house and a woman leading the race to succeed him but in the galley of the USS Michigan, it looks like barriers still have to be levered open by someone wielding a spatula.  It is difficult to avoid the message of history, that serving the needs of the body is inescapably low, devolved onto those who have nothing better to do while their superiors, freed from static of keeping themselves alive, get on with important things.  We may have graduated from calling such things “women’s work,” but in the closing years of the twentieth century women were still performing two-thirds of all working hours while getting one-tenth of the world’s pay and owning less than one percent of the world’s property.  That might not be slavery, but it isn’t quite freedom, either.

In 1970, anthropologist Judith K. Brown jotted down a four page essay by the name of “A Note on the Division of Labor by Sex.”  It was small but mighty in that it found a rationale behind the fact that in all different societies, you find men and women doing different work.  Brown’s notion was that women’s occupations came to be dominated by work that was interruptible, close to home, that could be done in pieces or set aside for a moment, in order to pursue that other, most fundamental work — bringing up baby.  So, weaving, spinning, sewing, housekeeping, foraging and, of course, cooking.  In other words, food, clothing and shelter.

Why this inescapably fundamental work came to be held in contempt by the powerful is one of the mysteries of human civilization.  Maybe the powerful could never accept that nothing they did could ever have as much intrinsic importance.  Or maybe it was simply that it was associated with the original-sin population of enslaved/colonized people — that is, women.  Regardless, time (and guys) have brought us to this place, where the repeated message that wealth and power are the be-all-and-end-all has become internalized in just about everything.

It’s an unfortunate division, between what you might call the (much-larger) care-based economy and the ostensible real economy, and more than a little ironic, as David Bollier points out, since the “science” of economics defines its purpose as the satisfaction of human needs.

I’m not sure what I think of all this.  Is it merely criminal that such inherently meaningful work is so thoroughly denigrated?  Or should we be grateful that the impossibility of escaping from our physical selves means that the hearth — in whatever form — will always be a door through which the outcast can find their way in?  As fraught as it may be, the making and serving of food, is one of those few human experiences that is universally binding, whether or not we want it to be.  I hope that Chief Saavedra is damn good at her job, and that her work, in some small way, reminds her shipmates of the fact that there are things that they share with all people.  It’s a good thought to encourage amongst those to spend their days aboard a machine capable of ending the world.


Group of Mess Stewards via the Library of Congress
Chief Saavedra’s Certificate of Qualification by Naval Base Kitsap
Pullman Porter by Jack Delano
Ship’s Cook Doris Miller by National Museum of the Navy
Mess Steward Dorall Austin at his Battle Station via the Library of Congress