African-American leaders made history at DLA predecessor agency

By John R. Bell

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As the Defense Logistics Agency prepares to observe Black History Month, it’s a fitting time to learn about African-American leaders who made history at the agency in its early years.

That history is there for the learning in the archived copies of the agency’s first employee newspaper, Defense Supply Agency News. It first appeared Jan. 16, 1963, one year after the agency got up and running under its original name.

In these early issues, it’s clear from the uninterrupted sea of white faces that DSA, like the rest of America, was struggling to be inclusive in the early 1960s and well after.

Yet even then, African-Americans at DSA were making their mark as supervisors, managers and scientists.

The March 11, 1964, feature on women leaders included Doretha Bebbs, a physicist and researcher serving as  a division director in the Defense Documentation Center, now the Defense Technical Information Center. Bebbs was again featured in the May 20, 1964, issue after becoming the division chief of the Research, Development Test and Evaluation division of DSA.

Bebbs earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree in physics from Howard University in Washington, DC, and married a physics instructor there. She began her career at the Library of Congress and worked as a supervisory librarian, writer and editor before being promoted to GS-14 in 1962, the article notes.

Given her scientific background, Bebbs “was one of the original group that created the first edition of DDC’s technical vocabulary for computer use,” the report states. She was also a member of the Army Ad Hoc Group on Scientific and Technical Information.

Ralph Beverly served as assistant chief of the Retail Branch in DSA’s Interservicing Division at DSA Headquarters, according to the May 11, 1964, issue of DSA News. Beverly, despite having earned a bachelor’s degree from what was then Hampton Institute in Virginia — alma mater of the agency’s current director — had to start his government career as a messenger in 1935.

“I took every Civil Service exam for which I was qualified and passed them all — exams in everything from clerk typist to economist — but for five years I remained a messenger,” he recalled. Beverly, an amateur violinist, got his first professional job as a clerk-typist for the War Department — predecessor of the Department of Defense — in 1940. He was active in the historic Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church in Washington, D.C.

Mentioned briefly on the last page of the Oct. 4, 1968, issue is Matilene Berryman, who was about to take on a temporary duty breaking down marine-sciences data for disadvantaged youth.  Berryman appears to have been something of a pioneer for women and African Americans: The article notes she had earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, taught oceanography at the Navy and “was the lone representative of her sex in a sonar engineering class of 46 students at Penn State University.”

Not mentioned is that she later became chair of the Department of Environmental Science at the University of the District of Columbia, according to her Washington Post 2003 obituary. She went before on to earn a law degree and become a practicing attorney.

That's not to say DSA or DLA didn't have room to improve. And fortunately, courageous African-Americans like Lillie Mae Brown held the agency accountable for implementing equal opportunity. Brown was inducted into the DLA Hall of Fame in 2018 for leading a 1974 class-action lawsuit that forced DSA to fully comply with the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972.

Brown ended up retiring from DLA as a GS-13, after pioneering multiple important technological innovations still in use at DLA.

Even in an era when the much of the nation bore the stain of segregation, when leadership roles in business and government were not yet open to all, men and women working for what would become DLA were using their talent and determination to make history.

For more on DLA’s early history, look for an article in the forthcoming March/April 2019 issue of Loglines magazine.