Samuel Gravely was born on June 4, 1922 in Richmond, Virginia. Gravely spent two years at Virginia Union University, where he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans. Following his time in college, he enlisted in the Naval Reserves on September 15, 1942 and was trained as a Fireman Apprentice. In 1943, he participated in the Navy V-12 program, which was designed to select and train Naval officers. As part of this training, he attended the University of California in Los Angeles, Pre-Midshipman School in New Jersey, and Midshipmen School at Columbia University. On December 14, 1944, Gravely successfully completed midshipman training, thereby becoming the first African American commissioned as an officer from the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps.
As a newly commissioned Ensign, his first assignment was to Camp Robert Smalls, as the Assistant Battalion Commander for new recruits. Afterwards, he began his seagoing career as a sailor aboard the USS PC-1264, a submarine chaser that was one of only two World War II ships with a largely African-American crew.
In April 1946, he was released from active duty, remaining in the Naval Reserve. He returned to his hometown of Richmond to complete his bachelor's degree in History.
Gravely was recalled to active duty in 1949. As part of the Navy's response to President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order to desegregate the Armed Services, his initial assignment was as a Navy Recruiter, recruiting African-Americans in the Washington, D.C. area.
Gravely went from recruiting to building a Navy career that lasted 38 years and included many distinguished accomplishments.
He became the first African American to command a United States Navy warship (Theodore E. Chandler), the first African American to command an American warship under combat conditions (Taussig), the first African American to command a major naval warship (Jouett), the first African American admiral, the first African American to rise to the rank of Vice Admiral, and the first African-American to command a U.S. Fleet (Commander, U.S. 3rd Fleet). He was also among the first African-Americans to attend the Naval War College in 1962.
Admiral Gravely was assigned tours of duty aboard the following: PC-1264, Iowa, Toledo and Seminole. He served as Executive Officer and Commanding Officer of the Theodore E. Chandler. Additionally, he was the Commanding Officer of the Falgout, Taussig, and Jouett. His last tour of duty before his retirement in August 1980, was as Director of the Defense Communications Agency in Washington, overseeing the communications network linking Washington with American and allied bases worldwide.
Admiral Gravely had three children, and was survived by his wife, Alma.