Aiken Native was the First African-American Woman to Graduate from Annapolis

Aug 16, 2019

Until the fall of 1976, only men were admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy. But that year, the Navy opened 80 spaces for women, who would be the first to graduate in, fittingly, the Class of 1980.

Among these women was Janie Mines, who grew up in Aiken and today lives in Fort Mill. She was also the only black woman at Annapolis her first year – a set of experiences she chronicles in her 2019 autobiography, No Coincidences.

There were a few black male and some white female midshipmen with her in 1976, but they had their own issues at the time, Mines says. The Navy, and certainly not its most hallowed school, were not keen on trying new things, like putting women into leadership roles in the late 1970s; much less women of color. And they let her know it.

“They called me the double insult because I was both black and a female,” Mines says.

In fact, she says, before she’d even decided to go, the Academy called her to let her know they’d be waiting for her – not in a welcoming way.

“The Academy called me and said ‘You’re gonna be the only one, are you coming?’” Mines says. “I said ‘Yeah, I’m coming.’ They said, ‘Well we’ll be waiting for you.’ I said, ‘Oh, Lord, here we go again.’”

At that point in her life, Mines had been accepted – with scholarships – to Ivy League schools and was wondering which of those to select. She’d applied to Annapolis for the challenge, for the chance to serve her country as some in her family had, and because she’d actually get paid a stipend, not to mention have a job waiting for her after graduation.

But until that phone call, Mines hadn’t decided which school to attend. She opted in the middle of that call to commit to Annapolis because she felt she had been properly prepared by life to deal with what lay ahead.

She was used to being the first, often the only, black girl to be so many things growing up – in school, at her job, at Aiken High School’s Naval Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. She also was used to being reminded that she was the first or only black girl in the mix.

But even so, the resolve of those at Annapolis to discourage her surprised her.

“I didn’t expect the level of determination,” she says. She eventually learned just how united the Navy could be when it feels threatened.

“They come together as a unit to fix something that they think is just fundamentally wrong and not good for the mission of the Navy or the country,” she says.  “That’s what they saw me as.”

Janie Mines, left, with her sister, Gwen, at USNA in 1978. 'Imagine what she would have endured if I left the first year,' she says.
Credit Courtesy, U.S. Naval Academy

The thing is, Mines understood the Navy’s motivation, even as a brand new adult on strange, hostile turf. She grew up steeped in faith, her father being a Christian minister. And that faith, she says, became the source of her strength. While the world tried to isolate her all her life, she developed a friendship with the Holy Trinity and always had good company.

“I talk about my invisible friends, God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit,” she says. “We played Cowboys & Indians when I was four. There was no way to isolate me.”

Her invisible friends also taught her the values of compassion and forgiveness, she says. That’s why Mines did not turn to a dark place, despite the name calling, the harassments both subtle and overt, and the efforts to distract her so she’d not be able to study.

“I never hated the Naval Academy or the other students,” she says. “I understood what they were doing and why they were doing it.”

Mines says she still has the utmost respect for the Navy and all military services in general. And she’s happy to see how far the services have come at getting past those old school prejudices.

There’s still a ways to go, she admits. The academy has been plagued by growing claims of sexual harassment – the Capital Gazette newspaper reported in February that 60 percent of female midshipmen (and 20 percent of male midshipmen) say they’ve experienced sexual harassment. Also, 43 years after Mines and her counterparts opened the gates for women at Annapolis, the Academy has yet to have a female superintendent.

But Mines is not concerned that such issues will always be the case. She says many of her male counterparts from her Academy days came around to respect her and the other women and that men in general grew to appreciate her telling her story. She says people (and institutions) need to be given the opportunity to grow up, learn from their errors, and become better and more rounded.

One thing Mines is less sure about is whether she is a trailblazer. She’s won awards for being one, but says she never really settled with the term.

“I think that I’m somebody who’s just trying to do the best they can in life as it relates to my fellow man and the things that God has for me to do,” she says. “If that means I’m the first or the millionth to do it, I don’t think about it one way or the other.”