Gregory Black has had some remarkable experiences since graduating from Owensboro High School in 1973. He has served as executive director for the H.L. Neblett Community Center, ran for Owensboro City Commissioner and starred in a feature film alongside such actors as Nat Parker and Gabrielle Union, placing him on the cover of National Geographic magazine. Although Black treasures each of these experiences as amazing opportunities that have blessed his life, there is one that he holds higher than the rest — meeting U.S. Navy master diver Carl Brashear — the man whose determination inspired the movie “Men of Honor.”
After graduating from Eastern Kentucky University with a degree in communications in 1978, Black found himself seeking a challenge, so he joined the Navy in 1979. With his degree, he was able to attend Officer Candidate School but was unsure about what role he would play on board the ship.
“I wasn’t real enthused about serving on ships, which is what I was slated to do,” Black said. “They asked if I would be interested in the deep sea diving program. Being an African-American, I began wondering if there were any [other] African-American divers.”
Black said that is when he discovered the story of Carl Brashear, the first African-American master diver, who accomplished the task as a one-legged amputee and coincidentally retired from the Navy the same year Black enlisted.
“I read his story and became pretty inspired and decided to give the diving program a try,” Black said. “Of course, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. The diver officer training program was very challenging — mostly because I wasn’t that good of a swimmer.”
Despite his initial lack of strength in swimming, Black was one of 14 officers that passed diving officer school out of the 37 that initially were assigned. Black said one of the most frightening times of his training was donning the 190-pound Mark V dive suit.
“The first time they put me in there, I was scared to death,” Black said. “I basically told them to take the suit off — then I began to realize, ‘I’ve come this far, I’m not going to let fear stop me.’ I stayed and stuck it out through the program.”
According to Black, there was a time while he was going through dive school when he wanted to quit. Unlike Brashear, who made master diver at a point in history when parts of the Navy were still segregated, Black received encouragement and personal visits from his classmates, instructors and commanding officer.
“He impressed upon me how important it was for me to finish the program because they were trying to get more minorities to become officers,” Black said. “I was the only African-American in the class and in the school. I was given a pretty slim chance of making it — but I was determined that I was going to stick it out and make it through. That was a real proud moment when I graduated from school.”
Black went on to have an adventurous career as a master diver, traveling to various parts of the world working in salvage and rescue. But, as he neared retirement, there was still one goal he had not accomplished. While he was stationed in Virginia Beach, Black had a conversation with a helicopter test pilot that would lead to him finally meeting his hero. The pilot turned out to be the son of Navy master diver Carl Brashear and was able to arrange a phone conversation for the two men to meet.
In 2000, while Brashear was wrapping up the film Men of Honor, the two men met face-to-face and spent the day together. Black soon found that diving wasn’t the only thing he had in common with Brashear, who grew up the son of sharecroppers in Sonora, Kentucky.
“We spent the day together and talked about diving and Kentucky,” Black said. “It was a proud moment because I was in 21 years, and it wasn’t until my final year I had the chance to meet him. The thing that really made me proud was that he had heard of me and wanted to meet me too.”
According to Black, he was the third African-American to graduate from diving officer school and, at the time, was the only one serving on active duty.
“It was the greatest moment of my life,” Black said. “He invited me to the premiere of the movie they showed in D.C. It was amazing all of the people who were there — Robert Deniro, Cuba Gooding, Jr. To sit there with him and a theater full of people and watch this movie about his life — and be surrounded by five academy award winners playing in the film — that has got to be one heck of an honor.”
Brashear died in 2006, after paving the way for other African-American master divers.
“After him, there were four other African-Americans who made master diver and we were all at his funeral,” Black said. “It was like saying goodbye to a family member. Everybody looked up to Carl — even the ones he had issues with came to respect him.”
Since meeting his hero, Black has found himself encouraging others to go into the diving program.
“It gives you some insight into the world that few people ever see,” Black said. “Walking on the bottom of the ocean — there are only a few people that have ever had that experience.”
Black retired from the Navy in 2001, and although he no longer dives, he said at age 63, he still maintains a consistent swimming and exercise regimen.
He said his Naval officer dive training has also equipped him to take on other challenges in his life such as acting, running for city commissioner and opening and operating his own veteran-owned business.
“I’m very proud of my military career and my service to my country — it was probably the best decision I made to join the Navy,” Black said. “Having the courage to go through the diving program has helped me throughout my life because it’s helped me to do things I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to do.”