Five members of the “Little Rock Nine” gathered Friday at Newport News Shipbuilding in preparation for the keel authentication ceremony of a new Virginia-class attack submarine that will pay homage to the group.
As sponsors and honorees of submarine Arkansas (SSN-800), their initials will be etched into the hull of the ship Saturday, representing the resiliency the Navy expects from its latest nuclear-powered attack submarine.
“Their characteristics of endurance and stick-to-itiveness are going to be part of this submarine and her crew forever,” said Jennifer Boykin, President of Newport News Shipbuilding.
The Little Rock Nine were the first Black students to enroll in an all-white high school in Arkansas in 1957, following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that declared segregated classrooms unconstitutional. Confronted by an angry mob of white segregationists and blocked by the National Guard, the students were able to enter the school only after intervention by federal troops, but endured harassment and threats throughout the school year.
The six women of the Little Rock Nine — Gloria Ray Karlmark, Melba Pattillo Beals, Elizabeth Eckford, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown-Trickey and Thelma Mothershed Wair — were selected to sponsor the 27th Virginia-class submarine. According to maritime traditions, ship sponsors must be women, but the male members of the group, Ernest Green and Terrence Roberts, also will be honored during the keel authentication ceremony.
The eight members will have their initials welded onto steel plates, which will be affixed to the submarine. The initials of the ninth member, Jefferson Thomas, will not be etched into the hull because the shipbuilders were unable to obtain a copy of his handwritten initials after he died in 2010.
For Karlmark, one of those in attendance Friday, the submarine represents development in technology and inclusion.
“It is high tech, but it is high tech with an awareness of our common humanity — our shared values, resilience and solidarity,” Karlmark said. “It is a wonderful way to show we are taking technology into the new world in a very positive way.
While the Arkansas is about 50% complete, the keel authentication marks the first ceremonial celebration of the submarine’s construction.
Construction of the Arkansas began in 2018 as part of teaming agreement with Huntington Ingalls Industries and General Dynamics Electric Boat. Once complete, the ship will join a class of the most advanced attack submarines in the world. It is expected to be commissioned in 2025.
As the first commanding officer of the Arkansas, Vincent “Adam” Kahnke is focused on honing the training and the culture of the crew members — encouraging them to embody the character traits of the Little Rock Nine. The culture formed during its pre-commissioning, he said, will last the 33-year lifespan of the submarine.
“We are honored to have the Little Rock Nine as our sponsors. Looking at the the resiliency required of a submarine during warfare — there are tons of ties back to that character trait,” Kahnke said.
Jessica Lawson, a Newport News Shipbuilding welder, said diversity and inclusion have been welded into the ship since it essentially was scrap metal.
“The people is what make it happen. We have a huge diverse group — from right out of high school all the way to the master shipbuilder that have been here 40-plus years. We have all come together to be part of the build,” Lawson said.
Green, one of the honorees and the first Black student to graduate from the all-white Arkansas high school, said the Little Rock Nine have received flurries of recognition over the years, “but having the keel of the submarine etched with our initials is a very high honor.”
”This is a chance to right a wrong. It underscores that you have to be strong in your convictions and willing to stand by them when they may not be popular,” he said.
The Arkansas’ Saturday milestone will be live streamed on the Huntington Ingalls website at 11 a.m. The keel authentication ceremony follows the delivery of USS Montana (SSN 794), launch of New Jersey (SSN 796) and “pressure hull complete” status of Massachusetts (SSN 798) at Newport News Shipbuilding earlier in 2022.
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