Near the main entrance to Savannah State University is a mounted fighter jet. The bright blue plane is an A-4 Skyhawk, outfitted in the colors of the special Naval division known as the Blue Angels.
Lt. Cmdr. Donnie Cochran graduated from Savannah State’s NROTC program in 1976 with a civil engineering degree. He went on to become the first African-American commander of the Blue Angels.
The university has a long history of military service.
In August 1898, President William McKinley approached and requested Richard R. Wright Sr. to act as paymaster of United States Volunteers in the United States Army. He was the first African-American to serve as an Army paymaster. Earning the rank of Major, he was the highest-ranking African-American officer to serve during the Spanish-American War.
In the years preceding America’s entrance to World War I, Savannah State was one of a handful of institutions contracted by the United States government to train African-American soldiers for posts in the Army. The vocational instruction included mechanical repair, electrical work and plumbing, and contained an option for academic studies as well.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered World War II. Savannah State students once again took up the cause. In addition to those who trained for combat, many chose vocational paths on the home front. The business department trained scores of women to be typists and secretaries and to run small businesses while the men were away. Young men learned trades like ship building, arc welding and radio repair, all greatly needed during World War II.
The current NROTC program was established at Savannah State in 1971. Since then, the unit has commissioned nearly 300 officers into service as Navy Ensigns and Marine Corps Second Lieutenants.
This story first appeared in Impressions, Fall 2015