Black History Month
February 21, 2018
February is African American History Month, so this week’s blog honors black employees and their contributions to Dahlgren in various capacities. The people highlighted below are a few of many retirees who served long careers at Dahlgren.
Clarence P. Jackson
Clarence P. Jackson
Clarence Jackson grew up in King George. He was in the second generation of his family to work at Dahlgren; his father had worked as a chauffeur beginning in the early 1930s. Jackson started working on the base in 1943, when he was about 17 years old. He joined the Army in 1945, and was sent to Fort McClellan for training. In a 1997 interview he stated, “I went there for advanced training, but the Japanese surrendered, and so they sent us back to Fort Meade to go to Germany to be MP, police. And we got there, and instead of going to Germany they sent us to Japan as occupation troops.” Jackson remained in Japan for the next year as a member of a baking company, making bread and ice cream. He was discharged in 1947 and came back to Dahlgren doing public works at the Plate Battery. After about a month, he was transferred to the A&P Laboratory where he ran tests on steel. In 1950, he was called back to the Army during the Korean War. He served for 8 months and was discharged, coming back to Dahlgren to work in the machine shop in 1951. His first job in the machine shop was to operate the saw, but within a few years he was promoted to machinist. Jackson worked as a machinist for about 20 years. He stated in the interview that, “I was made a model maker a little before I retired.” Most of the models he made were of missiles, and he specifically mentioned he remembered making models for Standard Missile and Sidewinder. Jackson retired in 1989, with over 45 years in the Federal service.1
Irene Kelly upon her retirement
Irene Kelly is originally from Westmoreland County. She first started working at Dahlgren in 1973 for Public Works. Within several years, she passed her clerk-typist examination and was promoted several times. In 1987, she began working as a library technician in the Technical Library, and she remained the in library for 30 years. Kelly worked mainly in special collections and cataloging, indexing, and inventorying the library’s holdings. It was her responsibility to make the reports written on Dahlgren projects and other archival documents accessible to employees for research. She received many performance and recognition awards over her career. Most recently, Kelly received a peer recognition “Mission Impossible” award in 2015 for completing an inventory of materials. Kelly retired from the library in July 2017 following 44 years of Federal service.
Charles F. Newton
Charles Newton also grew up in King George. His first job on the base was not working for the government though. Newton worked for Inspector of Ordnance in Charge Captain Garret “Mike” Schulyer doing housework and serving meals for three years from 1932–1934. He then worked as a rigger’s helper beginning in 1939, moving guns up to 18”. The crew he was on installed guns prior to proving and removed them after the work was complete. Newton worked at Dahlgren for the entirety of the war, and recalled that Schulyer personally protected him from being drafted. In total, Newton worked at Dahlgren for 27 years. He was also a deacon at Little Ark Baptist Church.
Olie Smith and Bob Walters in an interview for the 85th Anniversary
Olie Smith was born in Princeton, New Jersey. He earned a B.S. from Virginia State College, where he was in the ROTC and afterward received a commission in the Army. Smith earned his Master’s in Administration from New York University, and was the principal of Cople-Montross Elementary School for 12 years. His wife Pearl was a mathematician who began working at Dahlgren in 1963. Smith wanted to work closer to her, and in 1966 he heard about a job opening at Dahlgren for a personnel management advisor. He soon established several programs that promoted what he called “color-conscious” hiring practices. One was the pre-coop program, which brought black high school students to work at Dahlgren over the summer to encourage them to pursue careers as scientists and engineers. In a 2003 interview he stated that, “I went to high schools in the surrounding counties and recruited black students.” When Smith started his job at Dahlgren, there were only a few black scientists and mathematicians working here. He established a program that sent them to recruit black students at their own alma maters. No black colleges in Virginia had engineering programs at the time, so most of the people hired under that program were mathematicians and physicists. Smith was determined though, and he created a partnership with North Carolina A&T State University under which Dahlgren employees could earn engineering degrees. He also helped establish the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) program. His obituary stated, “Mr. Smith left a legacy of community service. He was a lifetime member of the NAACP. He served as director for the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters, was on the board of directors for Rappahannock Community College, and was a member of the Civic Association and the Dahlgren Lions Club. He served on the King George Planning Commission, on the Rappahannock Area Community Service Board and the local Parent/Teacher Association.” Smith also helped establish the first rescue squad in Westmoreland County. He retired from Dahlgren in 1987 and founded his own employment agency, Synergetic Employment Ventures. In 1997 he published Find a Way or Make One, a collection of his writings.
Gladys and Ira West
Gladys West was originally from Dinwiddie County. She taught school in Sussex for two years before she earned her Master’s. She began working for Dahlgren in 1956. When West was hired, she was “the second black woman hired at the base and one of only four black employees.” One of the others was Ira West (below), whom she eventually married. Her first job here was as a mathematician verifying range and bombing tables. She initially did the calculations by hand, but when the NORC computer was installed, she became its programmer. She reflected, “That was the biggest computer in the Navy at the time that they installed, so that was exciting because it was so fast and you could code much larger programs.” West transitioned to verifying data transmitted from satellites to determine their exact location, and “she worked on computer software that processed geoid heights, or precise surface elevations.” The work she did eventually led to the creation of GPS. In a 2011 interview West said, “I feel like I… made a real good contribution to the accuracy of the Global Positioning System.” Her work occasionally required travel, but she remarked that in the beginning of her career, she and other black employees were sometimes passed over for travel opportunities because Jim Crow laws made it difficult for them to eat in restaurants and stay in hotels. West said, “So if you work on a project with someone and you know you got an Afro-American under you… and you like your people and you want the best for your people and you can see how that person wouldn’t get to go.” Nevertheless, she persisted. She took on leadership roles as her career progressed, and went on to become the project manager for the Seasat radar altimetry project. After 42 years at Dahlgren, West retired in 1998. She has since earned her PhD in Public Administration, and is writing her memoirs.
Ira West began working at Dahlgren in November 1955 after graduating from college. In a 2003 interview, he stated he left college to serve in the Army, and finished his degree after he was discharged. At Dahlgren, he first worked as a mathematician in ballistic table preparations. Over the course of his career, he also worked in the Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) programs. He spent most of his career in SLBM, and of that time, West said, “I saw the development… through three or four stages and we always trained to improve the ordnance that we had on hand in the situation. It was a continuous effort there.” He was among the first African American branch heads. Former Technical Director Jim Colvard called West the “heart” of the SLBM program, saying, “the Navy couldn’t run it without [him].” West also earned his Master’s from the University of Oklahoma while working for Dahlgren. He retired from Dahlgren in 1990, remains a member of the Dahlgren Lions Club, has held numerous leadership positions with the Rappahannock Area Community Service Board, and ran a half-marathon at age 80.2
For more on African American History, check out Naval History and Heritage Command's feature on
African American Experience in the U.S. Navy
1 Clarence Preston Jackson interview with Patricia Knock. March 25, 1997.
2 “Briefs; Outgoing RACSB board chairman honored,” The Free Lance Star, July 22, 2001.