At last, honors for the first black Marines
“Whenever military service came up I couldn’t truthfully say, ‘Yeah, I’m a proud Marine,’” Smith said. “I tried to say it and it wouldn’t quite come out.”
Smith was one of thousands of African Americans who joined the Marine Corps during World War II and then learned they would be shipped off to a separate boot camp for blacks and serve in segregated support units commanded by white officers.
Along the way they suffered indignities — limited to support assignments while on duty, and confronted with racism when they were home on leave. After their service, they were not encouraged to stay in the military. Most faded from history.
“No one knew we existed,” he said.
That’s changed. One balmy evening this summer, Smith and other black World War II-era Marines sat alongside the Marine Corps commandant and watched an evening parade in their honor at the historic Marine Barracks in Washington.
Some of them were using canes. Others were in wheelchairs. Ranks of crisply dressed Marines passed in front of the reviewing stands, where Smith sat during the parade.
Smith struggled later to explain the emotions he felt. “It was liberating,” said Smith, who received a doctorate after the war and went on to a career as a professor and administrator at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign. “At last I feel like a damned Marine.”
The Marine Corps is determined to rescue the story of the Montford Point Marines — so named because of the segregated boot camp they attended — even though it has meant confronting uncomfortable truths about the history of the Corps and some of the earliest black Marines.
“How could we have taken that part of our history and slid it off to the side and not embraced it?” Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said in a recent speech.
Amos has ordered the Marine Corps to teach recruits the history of the Montford Point Marines, with the rest of the Corps’ legacy. He also intends to incorporate their story into the curriculum of advanced courses for senior officers.
“We’re going to anchor the rich history of Montford Point in the 236-year history of the United States Marine Corps,” Amos told a gathering of Montford Point Marines this summer.