WASHINGTON (NNPA) — It was about time. More than 60 years after 20,000 African-American men donned United States Marine Corps uniforms and trained at the legendary Montford Point Marine Corps facility in Jacksonville, N.C., the United States government celebrated them for their service with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor.
“It’s a long time coming,” said retired Sgt. Ruben McNair, 86, during an interview with ABC News in Washington, D.C. after the House passed a resolution last year honoring the Montford Point Marines. “Something you look forward to, wonder if you are going to make it to live long enough to see it.”
More than 400 of the surviving marines and their families showed up in Washington recently for the ceremony. Some walked with canes others rolled in wheel chairs, all of them marching out of a shadowed history of the armed services and a time when Black men were still considered second-class citizens, denied the opportunity to serve as commissioned officers, and unceremoniously discouraged from re-enlisting.
The young men that flowed through the segregated Montford Point camp just outside of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, renamed Camp Gilbert H. Johnson in 1974, from 1942-1949 endured mosquito-ridden barracks, shoddy latrines that harbored swamp snakes and unsanitary mess hall conditions. Health care on the base was even worst, consisting of an all-purpose vitamin and brown syrup, mixed with mineral oil and castor oil.
Staph infections and salmonella plagued the Montford Point Marines for years. They suffered indignities at the hands of superior officers who often saw training Negroes to fight as a waste of time at best and dangerous at worst. Yet, historians say that those first Black marines of the 20th century knew that they suffered and sacrificed for more than proving their mettle in combat in foreign conflicts. They also saw the value in gaining skills that would make them more effective leaders in their communities.
“[The Montford Point Marines] still understood the importance of defeating fascism abroad and by doing this thing they would be better prepared to deal with racism at home,” said Hari Jones assistant director and curator of the African American Civil War Memorial Freedom Foundation and Museum. Jones said that their fight wasn’t just about one war. It was also about civil rights and making a better way of life for Blacks in America.
Although Jones, a former marine himself, cherishes the recent ceremony in Washington honoring the Montford Point veterans, he’s saddened that the United States Marine Corps fails to tell the whole story.
“With the Marine Corps, the most disappointing thing is whenever they talk about the first African-American marines they leave out the African-Americans that served in the Continental Marine Corps and that disappoints me,” Jones said.
But telling that story is more complicated.
Blacks participated in every single armed conflict dating back to their service in the Continental Marine Corps during the Revolutionary War. John Martin, the first known Black Marine, served on the USS Reprisal from April 1776 to October 1777, engaging in hard scrabble ship-to-ship fighting with the British fleet until the brig sank and his entire Marine platoon perished.
Although more than a dozen Blacks were identified in their service, historians estimate that many more took up arms, the final toll lost to records that often didn’t include race. The Continental Marine Corps disbanded in 1783. In 1798 when the U.S. government re-established the United States Marine Corps, it barred Blacks and Native Americans from enlisting.
“Telling the story of how African Americans were later forced out of the Marine Corps and let back in is just not a story that they have chosen to tell and that’s disappointing because we know that they were there,” Jones said.
Not only were African Americans there, they showed their valor in significant numbers at every opportunity, fighting and dying for the ideals of a young nation.
After suffering heavy losses during the first year of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army lifted the ban on Black soldiers with help from Congress. Black sailors accounted for 15-20 percent of all enlisted men in the United States Navy.
During the American Civil War, when African Americans accounted for 1 percent of the northern population, they made up 10 percent of the Union Army and 15 percent of the Navy. Black soldiers earned 25 Medals of Honor for their indispensable service and bravery during the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed that, “Without the military help of the Black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.”
Fifty years later, as the United States prepared to go to war with Germany for the first time, the U.S. government would again turn away from the descendants of those “freedmen” that helped to preserve the Union. It didn’t take long for the U.S. military to realize that their mission was doomed to fail if they excluded African-Americans from their war efforts abroad.
Even as young, patriotic African-Americans crowded into U.S. military recruitment centers to bolster those war efforts, their eagerness and patriotism was often met with disdain.
General John “Black Jack” Pershing, often considered a mentor to World War II generals such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, George C. Marshall and George S. Patton, displayed this contempt for Black soldiers in a secret communiqué to French military in August 1918:
“We must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans…”
American generals with roots in the South, including LTG Robert Bullard, commander of the American Second Army, were so adamant in their resistance to arming Black soldiers and employing them in combat on the frontlines that they sabotaged all-Black units such as the 92d Division with inadequate training, reduced their successes to rumor while holding their failures on the battlefield under a microscope.
Jones said that the efforts of some high-ranking U.S. military officers to disparage Black soldiers lasted for decades in a concerted effort to limit the combat training they received for fear of giving Blacks the tools and the know-how to fend off violent racist attacks at home.
“If I teach you how to use a weapon, if I teach you how to plan a defense, it’s going to be very difficult for the Klan to do what they’re doing,” Jones said.
According to records compiled by what was then known as Tuskegee Institute, 161 Blacks were lynched in 1892. In 1909, the year the NAACP was established largely to outlaw lynching and to agitate for racial equality, 69 Blacks were lynched.
Black soldiers leaving and returning home were not exempted from that venom; some were spat on as they boarded ships to Europe. Dozens of Black war veterans were lynched, some while wearing their military uniform.
Still, Blacks continued to enlist in droves donning that same uniform bloodied by foreign and domestic strife, to fight for the ideals of a country that failed to fully recognize their sacrifices.
It took two executive orders, Executive Order 8802 signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 and Executive Order 9981 signed by Harry S. Truman in 1948, and the Korean War before the armed services fully integrated.
Jones said that Montford Point Marines and those who served in wars before them and after are the true American patriots who fought and died to hold the United States to the highest goals of the Declaration of Independence and the goals of the Constitution.
“The African-American patriots, despite being discriminated against, despite the spirit that would degrade them, they would rise superior to it,” Jones said. “They would become true patriots working for the ideal of the American dream when it wasn’t even real.”