05-18-2024  6:25 pm   •   PDX and SEA Weather
Admiral Zeita Merchant (Photo: NNPA)
Stacy M. Brown NNPA Newswire Senior National Correspondent
Published: 23 April 2024

 U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Zeita Merchant has made history as the first Black female admiral in the service’s 233-year history. Admiral Merchant, previously the commander of Sector New York, will now lead the Coast Guard Personnel Service Center in Washington, D.C., where she will oversee recruitment and scholarships.

Merchant said she initially joined the Coast Guard with the intention of financing her medical school education. “I always had this passion for service, but I never thought it would be in the form of military service. I really feel like this is God’s plan and not my plan,” she told the Clarion Ledger newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi.

“We get in our own way because we think we don’t deserve the best based on where we’re from. I would tell my younger self that you got to get out of your head, get out of your own way and the world is truly yours to conquer.”

Officials said the promotion highlights the Coast Guard’s ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion. Historian William H. Thiesen notes that African Americans have played a pivotal role in the Coast Guard’s history since its inception in 1790. “From the earliest days of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, Black sailors served alongside their white counterparts, with many making significant contributions during conflicts such as the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812,” Thiesen wrote in a column for the Coast Guard’s newsletter.

He wrote that the Coast Guard’s rich and illustrious history of African American service is filled with bravery and accomplishment milestones. From Aaron Carter, the first African American to die in combat defending the Cape Florida Lighthouse in 1836, to “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy, the first African American commissioned officer and ship’s captain, Black Coast Guard members have consistently broken barriers and paved the way for future generations.

During World War II, the Coast Guard led the federal government’s first official experiments in desegregation, commissioning its first African American officers and assigning Black officers and enlisted men to the USS Sea Cloud. By the war’s end, 5,000 Black members had served in the Coast Guard, with one in every five reaching petty officer or warrant officer levels.

In the following decades, African Americans continued to achieve notable milestones within the service. Thiesen asserted that Lovine Freamon and Bobby Wilks became the first Black graduates from Officer Candidate School in 1954 and 1956. Merle Smith, the first African American graduate of the Coast Guard Academy in 1966, later received the Bronze Star Medal for his service in Vietnam.

Modern times have seen African Americans reach even greater heights within the Coast Guard. Vince Patton became the first Black Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard in 1998, followed by Erroll Brown, the first Black flag officer, in 2002. Jeanine McIntosh earned her wings as the first African American female aviator in 2005, and in 2009, Felicia Thomas became the first Black female to command a cutter.

Merchant’s distinguished career features key roles such as Special Assistant to the 27th and 28th Vice Commandants of the Coast Guard, Congressional Fellow for the Committees on Oversight and Reform and Transportation and Infrastructure, and Executive Strategic Planner for the Coast Guard Flag and Senior Executive Service Corps.

Her educational background is equally impressive, holding a Doctor of Business Administration and a Master of Quality Systems Management from the National Graduate School at New England Institute of Business. She also earned a Master of Public Administration from George Washington University and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Tougaloo College.

Additionally, Merchant completed the Executive Education Leadership in Homeland Security program at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was a Seminar XXI National Security and Foreign Affairs Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

When a reporter asked what she would tell her teenage self, Merchant replied, “We get in our own way because we think we don’t deserve the best based on where we’re from. “I would tell my younger self that you got to get out of your head, get out of your own way and the world is truly yours to conquer.”

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