NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – What is now Naval Station Norfolk was built by local slaves and the descendants of slaves.
Over the decades there have been 50 commanding officers of Naval Station Norfolk. Friday, the base, with a community of 76,000 people, welcomed its 51st commanding officer, who is the first African American to command the base.
That officer, a 54-year-old female graduate of Old Dominion University, is the descendant of men and women who picked cotton in Jim Crow’s south.
It’s been a long time coming, but a change has come.
“This is the day that the Lord has made,” said Capt. Janet Days just before taking command of the world’s largest Navy base. Many who helped her along the way traveled to Norfolk to witness a historic change of command ceremony.
David Larson, her former Commanding Officer on the USS Simon Lake, recalled his advice to the captain when she was an enlisted sailor some 20 years ago.
“You don’t need to re-enlist in the Navy, which she was shocked about, because you are not doing enough for yourself,” Larson said. “Let’s get you to be an officer.”
Two of the captain’s three siblings, Joyace Cook and Ellonzo Hanks, spoke in memory of their father, the late George T. Hanks.
‘He probably would be speechless’
“Just to see his daughter, an African- American, his baby girl, be in this position in the military, I don’t know what dad would say,” Cook said. “He probably would be speechless, honestly.”
Days takes command as the Navy, due to budget cuts, is patching parts, pieces and protocols.
Systems and spirits are broken.
Since last year, nine local sailors have died by suicide. The most recent case took place days before a 10 On Your Side exclusive interview with Days.
“At the end of the day, it’s a people business,” Days said, talking about the Navy. “We are warfighters, but this is a people business, and that takes extra effort and commitment from every single one of us engaging with our sailors, our officers and our leaders in understanding what their challenges are.
For the base population of 76,000, they will now see Days’ name at security gates. This could be a sign of things to come in ongoing plans to right the ship.
“The engagement of the people piece at the levels, just because I’m a captain, it doesn’t mean I can’t go and have a conversation with the sailors,” Days said, “and they know that that’s how I lead.”