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Thomas Point Reunion

Lighthouse keeper John White returns to his one-time home after four decades

The first black officer-in-charge of the Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, John White was litterally a posterboy for the Coast Guard, appearing on the cover of a recruitment brochure in the ’70s.

In John White’s boyhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, schools and water fountains were separated for whites and colored. Rising from the final years of segregation, he could not imagine his future self, as the first black man in command of Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse, ushering in its 100th year of service in 1975.
    He got a glimpse of his future when his two older brothers were drafted into the Army for the Vietnam War.
    In 1969, the year he graduated high school, White too was drafted.
    Research into the armed services led him to the Coast Guard.
    “I heard about ice breaking, pollution response and the search and rescue,” White recalled. “I said, Man, I think I would like that.”
    He failed his first Armed Forces Entry Examination. But his sense of a calling motivated him to try again.
    “I just felt that was the branch God wanted me to be in,” White said. “So I studied a booklet that I checked out from the library for 30 days and had the recruiter come 100 miles from Greensborough, North Carolina, to Charlotte to pick me up a second time to re-take the test.”
    He passed.
    In basic training in Cape May, New Jersey, he had his first lesson on doing what he was told, when he was told and how he was told.
    “When you first arrive, you are given a ditty bag with all your issued belongings. We were given four towels and told to stencil one towel with our name on the upper right-hand corner and turn it over to do the second side.
    “Being young and smart, I thought that was taking the long way around, so I had decided to do all four at the same time. I was turning all four over. When the company commander saw what I was doing, man, I tell you, he came up to me and yelled, What are you doing? To which I said, Nothing, sir. He then said, I’m going to make an example out of you.
    “He picked up all four towels, as if he were pulling them from the dryer, and threw them into my face. It didn’t hurt me, but it did humiliate me in front of all of these guys from around the United States. The anger came and tears started to swell up in my eyes, but I didn’t let one tear drop. He then got close to my face and yelled, You see that glass door over there? Go over and put your nose to that glass door.
    “My first thought was, This guy’s prejudiced. The only thing that made me feel good and made me say that I will never disobey again was that, within 15 seconds, a white guy came up on the opposite side of the glass door and put his nose right up against mine,” White said.
    On the Coast Guard Cutter Chincoteague, White quickly moved up from seaman apprentice to boatswain’s mate 3rd class.
    “There were guys that were there before I came aboard as a seaman apprentice,” White said. “When I moved up in rank above them, some of them got mad. They’d say, Man, you just got here, and I’ve been here three years, and you’re gonna tell me what to do? But I had them look beyond all that and said, Man, I earned this.”
    Next, White was transferred to Annapolis, where, after a year, he moved up to petty officer 2nd class and a rare opportunity: A commanding officer offered him charge of Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse.
    “I figured it was a challenge for me to take on this task,” White said, “and having one or two other people under me was a responsibility that I felt I could take on.”
    White was assigned as the officer-in-charge of the lighthouse with a non-rate and a petty officer 3rd class under his command.
    As a lighthouse in Chesapeake Bay, the unit was unique.
    There the three Coast Guardsmen rotated the duty, each standing a two-week shift while one took a week off. With only two members at the lighthouse at a time, the duty was further split to have one man awake at all times. That meant, on average, the duty watchstander would have eight hours of solitude every day.
    “The biggest challenge was making sure the men in my charge were doing their assigned duty and responsibilities during the week I was off. I needed to impress upon them how important it was to be lighthouse keepers and ensure the foghorn was operative, the beacon was working and that the light was on every night when it was supposed to be,” White said.
    Keeping his experience from boot camp in mind, White used that as a model to conduct his actions and hold others accountable for theirs.
    “You give me a job, teach me what to do, and I’ll try to perfect that job,” said White. “That coupled with a desire to succeed formed a mindset of being able to do anything I wanted to do — if I did what I was told, when I was told and how I was told.”
    Some six Coast Guardsmen came under his command in his three years at Thomas Point.
    “None stayed much longer than a year,” White said. “I think it could have been boredom, the difficulty in being away from home three weeks of the month or that they wanted to try something else.”
    White stayed, making the best of his unique position.
    “I loved seeing and meeting all the mariners that passed by the lighthouse,” White said. “Some of the boaters would come out here every week. I knew some personally, visited some of their homes, they cooked meals for me and wrote me letters.
    “That really made me feel like I was doing something of importance,” White said. “Not only as officer-in-charge but also as a friend of the people in the Bay itself. They would come just to visit the lighthouse. I was always open to giving them a tour. It was like showing off my home away from home.”
    Nearing the end of his tour, White asked for an extension to be there for the centennial celebration of the lighthouse.
    “You can’t imagine how it made me feel to be officer-in-charge of the lighthouse as it turned 100 years old. And how proud I was to have that position as an Afro-American,” he said.
    Thirty-nine years later, while celebrating his 26th wedding anniversary in 2015, White returned to visit Coast Guard Station Annapolis.

When members of the Coast Guard Station Annapolis learned that White and his wife were visiting for their reuinion, they decided to take them to the lighthouse.

    “Finding out about White wanting to visit and his history was very exciting,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer William Krukowski, officer-in-charge of Coast Guard Station Annapolis. “We decided to take him to the lighthouse.”
    White reminisced about the feeling of the wind and sun against his face as he used to fish there. He thought back on all the filleting and cooking he did, the way his room looked with the pictures he hung on the walls and bringing curtains to the lighthouse for it to feel more like home. Most off all, he recalled just how grateful he was then and is now for the historic position he held.
    “White gathered us all together and said, Before we leave, I just want to sing you all a song,” said Krukowski.
    White sang, “Lord I just want to thank you … I want to thank you for being so good to me.”

Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse