Paying Honor to a Trailblazer

When 16-year-old James Henry Conyers left Charleston in 1872, no one who looked like him had ever been where he was going. Conyers’ arrival at the U.S. Naval Academy, following his nomination by a South Carolina congressman, marked the first time a Black man would enroll there.

He was first, and he was alone. White classmates tormented him. Conyers endured repeated beatings and verbal abuse. Once, classmates tried to drown him.

After a year, he’d had enough. Conyers returned to Charleston and made a living as a ship caulker. His legacy faded.


On Nov. 14, 150 years after Conyers made history, the Naval Academy Alumni Association unveiled a marker near where Conyers and his wife, Fannie, are buried. The small obelisk includes both their names at the bottom and notes his role in Naval Academy history at the top.

“Sadly, we can’t go back and change Mr. Conyers’ experience at the Naval Academy. But what we can do and what we must do and are proud to do is to share his story of courage and service,” said Jeff Webb, CEO and president of the Alumni Association. “The telling of that story is long overdue.”


Conyers was born in tumultuous times: He was 6 when the battle of Fort Sumter raged in Charleston, 8 when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Conyers attended school at the Avery Normal Institute and as a teenager worked as a messenger in the S.C. Secretary of State’s office. After the Naval Academy, Conyers spent the rest of his life in Charleston.

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