A photograph can tell us a lot, but it cannot tell us the full story. And that is the mystery behind the crew picture of the River Cutter Yocona, commissioned in 1920 and stationed in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Apart from the commissioned and non-commissioned officers, the crew is African American. This rudimentary form of shipboard desegregation is very surprising given the discrimination and violence carried out against African Americans at that time in U.S. history. How an integrated crew operated a cutter in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era is indeed a mystery.
This story begins in 1913, many years before Coast Guard River Cutter Yocona was commissioned. In the list of deadly American floods, the Great Flood of 1913 ranks second in number of lives lost. The 1889 Johnstown Flood distinguished itself as the deadliest with approximately 2,200 victims killed in the small city of Johnston, Pennsylvania. However, the 1913 Flood affected over a dozen states, killed between 600 and 900 civilians, caused hundreds of millions in damage, and left homeless 250,000 Americans. For that reason, the Great Flood of 1913 is considered by many experts as the most devastating flood in U.S. history.
Because of this natural disaster, Congress voted to fund federal flood relief and rescue work on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. On Aug. 29, 1916, a naval appropriations bill passed that included money for the construction of three “light-draft river steamboats” for the Coast Guard. Their mission was to “give relief, succor, and assistance to victims of floods” on the two major river systems.
Of the three “river cutters” Congress funded, only two were completed. These were the cutters Yocona and Kankakee, constructed in Dubuque, Iowa. The service commissioned them both on Oct. 19, 1919, and stationed the Kankakee on the Ohio River at Evansville, Indiana, and the Yocona on the Mississippi River at Vicksburg, Mississippi. Yocona took up its station Jan. 18, 1920, and Kankakee took up its station March 20.
These 182-foot steel-hulled riverboats were powered by stern paddlewheels designed for river navigation and they carried a complement of 35 officers and men. Drawing only three-and-a-half feet when fully loaded, their flat hulls were ideal for shallow waters. The cutters were also equipped with dual searchlights, powerful water pumps, advanced radio equipment and spacious cabins to house flood victims. As the earliest river cutter to carry out its duties, Yocona became the first Coast Guard cutter of any kind to operate on the nation’s Western Rivers.
In addition to Yocona’s specialized design, the cutter proved unique in the nation’s history of racial desegregation. Within a year of Yocona’s commissioning, it received an entirely black enlisted force while Kankakee’s crew was composed of only white officers and men. Except for officers, Yocona’s enlisted crew was entirely African American, including petty officers in every rating.
By recruiting an all-black enlisted force of petty officers, Yocona’s officers had set a precedent for desegregating the nation’s sea service vessels. While Yocona may be the first desegregated federal ship in American history, the service never publicly recognized the groundbreaking cutter as such. More than likely, the Coast Guard recruited the best-qualified watermen near Yocona’s homeport of Vicksburg. The fact that the Coast Guard operated a cutter with an integrated crew nearly 100 years ago is history making. However, the fact that Yocona was home-ported in a state that held the nation’s worst record of discrimination and violence toward blacks makes this achievement even more remarkable.
Desegregation of U.S. Navy ships came over 20 years later. In the spring of 1944, the Navy desegregated its first ship using Yocona’s system of black enlisted men with white officers and non-commissioned officers. On the other hand, the Coast Guard’s wartime desegregated cutters, such as the USS Sea Cloud, assigned African American men to every level of command, including officers and non-commissioned officers. Moreover, the Coast Guard’s wartime desegregated cutters began operating a year earlier than the Navy’s first “integrated” warships, such as the Destroyer Escort USS Mason, which was made famous through books and movies.
The Coast Guard stationed cutter Yocona at Vicksburg through 1925 to provide flood assistance. During the seasonal floods that historically plagued the Mississippi. Yocona proved a pioneering cutter in three ways. It was the first Coast Guard cutter stationed on the nation’s Western Rivers and first stern paddlewheel cutter to serve in the lower U.S. More importantly, Yocona proved the first federal vessel in peacetime manned by a racially integrated crew. Ironically, this desegregated cutter’s homeport was located in the Deep South over 100 years ago. Yocona’s achievement remains an important chapter in American minority history and the story of the long blue line.