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This is a contributing entry for Remembering WWI in Norfolk and only appears as part of that tour.Learn More.

Dudley Allen Payton was an African American man who joined the US Navy in 1913 at the age of 18. His job options in the navy were severely limited by the color of his skin, so he was assigned as a ward room steward. The ship he was serving on in 1917 was the USS Scorpion. The ship, along with its crew, were interned by the Turks when the US declared war.


Dudley Payton was born on July 24, 1895, in Middlesex Virginia. He was a citizen of the United States but due to the implementation of Jim Crow Laws, he was unable to vote. He came from a poor family and did not receive much education, only completing grammar school.

            He took this grammar school education and joined the Navy in October of 1913. Being African American again limited him and instead of being given a combat role or training he became a Ward Room Steward. These men would serve the officers their meals much the same way a butler would. Their position existed only as a benefit of rank for the officers. There were some perks to the job however. The men would hear conversations the rest of the crew was unaware of and could have one on one conversations with officers.

            He would server on the USS Mississippi, the USS Franklin, and the USS Scorpion. It was his time on the Scorpion that was the most noteworthy. In April of 1917 the ship was stationed in Constantinople, Turkey, (Modern Istanbul) when the US declared war on the Central Powers, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. The Turks gave the Scorpion a 24-hour notice to leave port, but the captain refused to leave American civilians behind, and so the ship was interned for the duration of the war. He wrote of his time in Turkey as being good. He and the crew were often restricted to the ship for weeks on end but were still allowed to come ashore and see the city once in a while. During this time Payton managed to learn French, both reading and writing. This is an amazing accomplishment for any enlisted man at this time let alone an African American one. Moreover, his English education was average at best which surely put him at a disadvantage when trying to learn a new language.  

            When the war ended he and his crewmates were returned to the US. They were all awarded the POW award for their time in Turkey as well as a Minesweeping award. Finally, at the time he wrote out his war questioner he was still serving in the Navy which would suggest that he enjoyed his time.