When Wendell Chinn graduated from Prairie View A&M, a historically Black college and university (HBCU), he didn’t realize he made history — twice. Chinn was in the first four-year naval program at any HBCU, and he was the only student to earn his sword, a requirement for the graduation uniform, through academic achievement.
In June, Chinn donated the sword to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Chinn, a native of Texas, entered Prairie View in 1968. At the time, no other predominately Black college had a naval program. When he entered, he knew he would need the sword on graduation day. The problem was his parents couldn’t afford it. Chinn knew he could earn the sword for free if he graduated with honors. So, that’s what he did.
In June, Chinn, who is now living in Indianapolis and serves as pastor of New Life Apostolic Church of Seymour, was the guest of honor at a ceremony where he bestowed ownership of the sword to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. The museum plans to feature the sword in a public exhibit to immortalize Chinn’s accomplishment.
The Smithsonian first contacted Chinn a year and half ago to inquire about the sword. The inquiry surprised Chinn because he did not know the sword was significant. After the Smithsonian confirmed the sword was genuine, Chinn agreed to donate it. Then the museum planned a ceremony for Chinn, his family and his former classmates where Chinn would transfer ownership of the sword.
“I was astonished that the sword had a historical relevancy to it,” Chinn said. “I didn’t realize that what I did was historically important.”
During the ceremony on June 15, Chinn and Ruth Simmons, the current president of Prairie View, spoke about the college, what Chinn accomplished and what an honor it is for the sword to be featured in the museum. Then, former Navy men and women from Prairie View formed a line, with Simmons at the end. Chinn passed the sword to the first person in line who passed it to the next person and so on. At the end of the line, Simmons handed the sword to the museum’s assistant curator, symbolizing the change of ownership.
“I have three younger brothers who are very significant in and of themselves in their individual professions,” Chinn said. “To see them with my wife at the table looking up at their big brother, that will be etched in my memory.”
Chinn’s brothers and wife were not his only family members proud of this accomplishment. Chinn’s son, Wendell Chinn Jr. was overjoyed when he first heard the news. Not only did he appreciate how happy the Smithsonian made his father, but Wendell Jr. believes his father’s story could inspire people who see the exhibit.
“I hope, especially for people of color, young Black men and boys see that and know they can do anything in life if they put their mind to it,” Wendell Jr. said.
Currently Smithsonian employees are still determining where, when and how to display the sword. Chinn wants the sword be in an exhibit about Prairie View, which he thinks is the most likely possibility. When the museum does display the sword, Chinn plans on taking a trip to see it alongside his family.
“For me that’s the culmination of everything, to actually see it,” Chinn said. “The ceremony itself was elegant, but to actually walk through the museum and see it will be the culmination with my family. It will probably bring tears to my eyes. I’m an emotional pastor.”
Contact staff writer Ben Lashar at 317-762-7848. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminLashar.