Skip to main content

When I was a little girl, I remember the overpowering presence of my big brother--Bee-Bow. That is what I called him; because I could not say William - Arthur or Benson.



...Navy's first black photographer."
Jan/Feb 99
by Jo2 April Phillips

History has made legends from many of the crusaders for civil rights. And deservedly so. From the empowering anger of Malcolm X to the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many necessary changes in American society would never have come to light without leaders such as these.

But not every crusader had his or her picture in the paper or face in the news. Some quietly made significant changes through their knowledge, commitment, and hard-working efforts.

One such man was William Arthur Benson, Sr. In the summer of 1955, he made history by becoming the Navy's first black photographer to be accepted to and attend photo 'A' School in Pensacola, Fla.

As a young man in Cincinnati, Ohio, Benson attended a vocational school for photography. Soon after, he entered the Navy and with the skills he honed in school, he was more than qualified to be a Navy photographer.

Benson's son, SM2 Floyd Benson, a Naval Reservist attached to Law Enforcement and Physical Security Unit 0186, remembers stories his father told of his early days in the military. Although he was definitely breaking new ground for minorities and undoubtedly faced with prejudice, Benson said his father never spoke of it.

"My father never talked about discrimination. He believed that anyone could make it on his own merit if they pushed themselves for it," the younger Benson said.

William Benson lived this philosophy and set an example for his son. "We would have long discussions on life, and how to make it," Floyd Benson recalled. "His big thing was education. My father once said to me, 'Show me a man who knows how, and he'll always have a job. Then show me a man who knows why, and he'll be his boss."

William Benson made it to the rank of PH2 during the 10 years he spend in the Navy. His son has been handed down a rich legacy of stories and his father's love of photography.

"He loved taking photos," Floyd said. It's a form of art to him. But he hated hanging out of helicopters strapped to a harness taking pictures for aerial reconnaissance while getting shot at!" he added.

During his time in the Navy, the senior Benson served as a reconnaissance photographer on board the USS Ranger, and also wintered over in Alaska. He had many of the same concerns facing Sailors of all races in the Navy today.

"One thing he did speak of was how seemingly impossible it was to make first class. He would pass all the tests with flying colors, but the Navy still would not advance him, so he served as acting first class," Floyd said. "He was then told that if he went back to Vietnam, he would be given the rank," but William's son explained since the deal wasn't in writing, his father declined the orders and left the Navy to face new challenges in the civilian world.

Floyd remarked when it comes to making rate, not much has changed.

"It's still hard to make rank, " he said. "But it has nothing to do with the color of your skin."

Benson is not certain if his father realized what a role model he was, but he certainly had a tremendous effect on young Floyd. He followed in his father's footsteps, spending 8 years on active duty and two in the Naval Reserve.

Although Benson works in physical security and public affairs with his unit, he is a whiz at photography. "My father taught me the art of photography and how to paint with light," said Benson.

In the civilian sector Floyd Benson is an account manager for Bank of America, but he said, "My heart is in photography. I am in the process of starting my own company called "Painting With Light Photography."

Benson's father also used his photo skills in his civilian career. Once again, William Benson walked in unfamiliar territory, using his expertise to land a job as the first black videographer for WVEC-13 news here in Norfolk, VA.

Reflecting on the advances made by people like his father, Floyd said, "The opportunities are definitely there, but now that women are allowed to serve on combatant ships, I often wonder if they are facing the same prejudices that blacks had when they first opened the ratings to them?"

Sadly, William Arthur Benson, Sr. passed away October 21, 1997. Fittingly, November 28, 1997, on board the USS Samuel B. Roberts, he was buried at sea. The ship's commanding officer, Cmdr, C.M. Wode said the ship was slowed, the colors were displayed at half mast, and one half hour before sunset a seven person rifle squad fired three volleys.

Floyd Benson told how the religious service was given by the commanding officer, "and with all this," he said "they never knew they were burying the Navy's first black photographer.

Always Remember that: "Anytime We As A People Are Not Having Our WaySomeone Else Is Having Theirs...And It's Never To Our Advantage."

Last edited {1}
Original Post

Replies sorted oldest to newest

Thanks JWC!

I knew my brother was special, but I never knew to what extent...until after his death!

He never bragged about any of his experiences:

Photographs of Alan Shepard.
Live news coverage of Robert Kennedys' train ride thru Baltimore, MD after his assassination.
Steering a ship.
Beautiful ships that he sailed.
Photographs of holding a penguin.
Photographs of the Panama Canal.

His dogmatic-pragmatic approach to every subject he discussed with me was ever present. When our mother passed he took all the photographs of the funeral. I remember him saying:

"You know, sis, taking pictures is like telling a story. Each photograph is a chapter of that story as it unfolds. And that's why I love taking pictures."

I am forever proud of him, he is the role model for our entire family...

PS I held back a looooog time from posting this info, however his birthday approach's soon and I felt this was my way of making a tribute to him...
Last edited {1}

Add Reply

Link copied to your clipboard.