Retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Stephen Evans shared his amazing story of growing up in the small town of Beaufort, South Carolina, during the 1970s to becoming one of the Navy’s highest-ranking officers—a level reached by few Black Americans—as the featured speaker at William Blair’s annual Black History Month event on February 23.
Reflecting on Black History Month, Evans said it is important to remember the people and events in the history of African Americans not just one month of the year; it should be part of history.
“African Americans have served our country and our armed forces since inception, all the way back to the Revolutionary War,” he told the audience. “Our history doesn’t tell that. That’s one of the reasons we have Black History Month, so we can tell those stories, tell that history.
“As you look at the diversity of your organization—getting to know the people you have working beside you, I think the one thing you’ll find is that you have more in common than you have separately,” Evans added. “Your diversity, your different backgrounds whether they be ethnic, racial, or education, they are all strengths that come to the table to solve hard problems. So as we look to the future, those are the things which are going to continue to make our nation strong and our organizations strong.”
ONE Alliance and Veterans’ Alliance Host the Event
William Blair’s business resources groups ONE Alliance, which celebrates all cultures and ethnicities, and Veterans’ Alliance, which supports veterans and their initiatives, invited Evans to speak to colleagues gathered at William Blair’s Chicago headquarters and online.
Throughout his 34-year military career, Evans served in many leadership positions around the globe, including combat roles as Ship, Task Force and Strike Group Commander to the advisory role to the 75th Secretary of the Navy and deputy U.S. military representative to the NATO military committee before retiring in 2020. He is a graduate of The Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, and the U.S. Naval War College.
An African American Military Journey
“I’m not the first African American to make this journey,” he said, “I stand on the shoulders of giants—starting with my parents, John and Sara Evans, who raised me to think I had no boundaries to always reach for the stars.”
Evans, one of six children whose father was a Marine veteran, recalled family vacations to visit relatives in Virginia and Georgia. They would pile into the station wagon and his dad would always put a couple of cans of gasoline in the back. As a kid, Evans didn’t think much about it. But years later, Evans’s dad told him there were only certain places they could stop for gas. It was a time of great inequality, the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
“They shielded us from those negative things which they thought would hold us back,” he said.
Evans shared many stories of how the outlook of his parents and other mentors helped him overcome career roadblocks; some were overtly racially motivated. Among those was when he was an ensign on his first ship assignment. As a young commissioned officer, Evans was working on his qualification book for the ship—used to identify one’s sailing knowledge and performance as a leader—when a Navy commander questioned his motives.
Evans told the commander he was pushing ahead on it, which requires signatures from the ship’s instructors that a sailor has mastered a specific task or skill to get promoted. That’s when the commander said a promotion was unlikely on this ship, a response that motivated Evans to work harder and secure more signatures.
He believed the door of opportunity would open up. The question was whether he would be ready to walk through it when it did: a life motto Evans has shared with his crews throughout his career.
Then life changed, as it always does. A new commanding officer was assigned to the ship, and he began asking how the ensigns were doing on their qualifications. Ensign Evans was the only one who had all his signatures in his qualification book. Evans said the captain responded by saying: “‘Let’s give Ensign Evans an opportunity to see what he can do.’”
“That captain was also sitting in the front row of my change of command ceremony as a strike group commander almost 30 years later,” Evans said. “He’s the guy who gave me an opportunity to have a Navy career.”