Originally created 02/21/99

Black firsts helped bring equality

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- Robert A. King became Georgia's first black pilot on the Savannah River this month, a monumental step of progress in business and economic racial equality in Savannah, observers said.

Casual visitors to Savannah City Hall's second floor council chambers during Mr. King's swearing-in ceremony had no idea history was in the making.

The four-man Savannah Pilotage Commission certified and swore in Mr. King, 25, as his mother, grandmother, uncle and other relatives and friends watched.

"I wasn't nervous until people started showing up," Mr. King said just before the meeting.

He'll have plenty of time to get over the nervousness. Starting March 2, he will put in a 30-day consecutive shift running cargo ships in and out of the port of Savannah. He is one of 13 pilots who meet ships and barges at the mouth of the channel and guide them into port on the Savannah River.

"That's our in-house probation period," 25-year veteran pilot Michael Foran said jokingly. "He can handle it. He's tough."

Looking at Mr. King, one would wonder if the Norfolk, Va., native truly is tough enough for the job. He is small in stature, not even looking his tender age. Savannah River pilots have to climb a Jacob's ladder 50 feet straight up the side of a moving container ship in rough weather, often in the pitch of night.

He grew up in Ocilla, Ga., and after attending Georgia Tech transferred to Valdosta State University to major in foreign languages with hopes of one day becoming a United Nations interpreter.

He even got a job as a translator with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. But then someone told him there was a job opening in Savannah.

On Dec. 13, 1994, Mr. King began his four-year apprenticeship with the Savannah River pilots. History was beginning another chapter in this historic seaport.

"I am not sure that everyone realizes the historic nature of this moment," historian and former civil rights activist W.W. Law said during Mr. King's certification hearing.

"This is the culmination of a dream by Capt. Frank W. Spencer and the NAACP over 35 years ago," Mr. Law said. "We should be proud that we have the most important function in this old town -- bringing ships in and out of the port."

Capt. Spencer is generally acknowledged as the father of the modern port in Savannah and led early efforts to dredge and maintain the shipping channel.

Mr. King appears to be taking his role with humility.

"I'm just trying to do my job," he said. "I'll leave that (historical discussions) to everyone else. But being the first of anything does carry an obligation, to yourself and to others, to do well."

Savannah Mayor Floyd Adams Jr. congratulated the Savannah Pilots Association and the Pilotage Commission for giving Mr. King the opportunity to try out as a pilot.

Master River Pilot Bill Brown said it was time for a change, a time to bring more equality to the river's piloting community.

"We were in a recruiting mode in 1994, and we started talking about making some changes in personnel," Mr. Brown said. "We agreed we need to seek out a minority to apprentice."

Mr. King's mother, Janice, has looked forward for four years to her son completing his apprenticeship and becoming a full-fledged pilot.

"He has worked very long and very hard and has come a long way from when he first began as an apprentice, when he knew little about ships, much less boats and navigation.

"He was seasick quite a bit there, but that's something you work out of," Mr. Foran said. "He has done very well. He's smart. He'll do great."


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