Righting a Decades-Old Wrong for Black Servicemembers

LAAW Program Director Elizabeth Kristen and family members of John and James Ponder at a ceremony at the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes

By Amelia Gallay, Law Clerk at Legal Aid at Work and rising 3L at U.C. Berkeley Law

John and James Ponder were among 18 Black sailors stationed aboard the U.S.S. Philadelphia in 1940. In September of that year, John, James and 13 of their peers (all Black “mess men”) wrote an open letter to the Pittsburgh Courier detailing their mistreatment and warning other Black men against joining the Navy to avoid experiencing such disrespect and inequity. The letter, signed by each of the “Philadelphia 15,” painted a clear picture of racial segregation and unequal treatment. While their White counterparts served in various capacities in all branches of the Navy, Black sailors were uniformly relegated to serving as mess officers: waiting tables and making beds. Black sailors were paid less than White sailors during their first year of service and were subjected to unequal punishment, sanctioned abuse, and retaliation from peers and officers on the ship. The Philadelphia 15 knew the letter would likely subject them to formal discipline or worse, but in their own words, “[w]e only know that it could not possibly surpass the mental cruelty inflicted upon us on this ship.” After the letter was published, the fifteen sailors were imprisoned aboard the U.S.S. Philadelphia and eventually less-than-honorably discharged.

In addition to the significant moral wrong and affront to one’s dignity, to be discharged other than honorably for improper purposes has practical consequences for the rest of a veteran’s life. A less than honorable discharge precludes someone from accessing a wide array of Veteran’s Benefits, including financial support to pay for college, compensation benefits, pension benefits, home loan benefits, and many more.   

It was not until after his father’s death that Larry Ponder, John Ponder’s son, even knew about the Philadelphia 15 and the injustices they suffered, let alone that his father was among them. In fact, John Ponder lived the rest of his life expressing support for the armed forces, despite the circumstances of his discharge. Each of his children served in the military at his encouragement as did many of his other relatives including his granddaughter Erica who served in the Navy.

In early 2020, Larry contacted LAAW attorney Elizabeth Kristen seeking to right a historical wrong that had festered for eighty years. In November of 2021, Larry and Elizabeth filed a petition with the Navy requesting to have John Ponder’s discharge upgraded, planning to eventually do the same for the other 14 men.

On June 9, 2023, after several setbacks and years of uncertainty, Elizabeth and Larry received word from the Navy that not only would all 15 sailors receive upgrades to “Honorable” discharge, but that Elizabeth, Larry, and his family were invited to a ceremony honoring the Philadelphia 15 to be held at the Pentagon in advance of Juneteenth.

Gathered in the Pentagon’s “Hall of Heroes” on June 16, 2023, members of the Ponder family including Larry Ponder (John’s son), James Ponder Jr. and Mavis Ponder Doss (James Ponder’s children), and Erica LaFaye (John Ponder’s granddaughter) were presented with a copy of the decision upgrading their relatives’ discharges to honorable.  The decision stated that the Philadelphia 15 being discharged “simply for speaking out about the racial bias and truths that infected the Navy at the time certainly represented an injustice.”  Therefore, the Board upgraded their service records to “honorable” and issued them a formal apology.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Parker, made remarks at the ceremony in which he noted that to acknowledge past injustices brings us closer to the ideals on which this Nation is founded and brings us closer to that “more perfect union.” 

Larry Ponder spoke for the family at the ceremony noting that his father and his uncle loved their family, loved their church, and loved their country.  He said, “Thank you for righting the wrong we went through”, and he expressed hope that the families of the other Philadelphia 15 sailors would also come forward to receive some closure.  Erica LaFaye, John Ponder’s granddaughter who served in the Navy under the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy (which discriminated against service members based on sexual orientation) noted the connection between what her grandfather experienced, having his service tainted by racism, and what she experienced, having her service tainted by homophobia.

We hope to hear from other family members of the Philadelphia 15 so that they too may receive word of the upgrade of their family members’ discharges and the Navy’s efforts to remedy this grave injustice. 

Legal Aid at Work is also partnering with servicemembers, veterans, and their families to correct discharges that occurred because of individuals’ orientation under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or predecessor policies. We are pursuing advocacy to upgrade “less than honorable” discharges and remove indicators of sexual orientation from discharge forms for the many thousands of veterans affected by these policies. With this work, our goal is to help veterans access the benefits (including medical, financial, and academic benefits) they earned through their service, and to restore the dignity of their service.

If you were discharged from the military because of your sexual orientation or race (or know someone who was) and would like to learn more about how we can help, please contact [email protected] or (415) 593-0038 (please leave a voicemail if unanswered). Our services are free and confidential.

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