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Black Marines who fought in the 1940s are finally being honored for their service to the United States. Camp LeJeune in North Carolina was then known as Montford Point, and housed nearly 20,000 Black Marines starting in 1941.
Today, the buildings that housed those Black marines during training are being painstakingly restored, due to the effects of climate change and hurricanes that rocked North Carolina. The area is known as Camp Johnson, after one of the first Black drill instructors, Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson.
The Marine Corps was the last military organization to integrate – and it was not done willingly. Only after an order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt did the military base allow Black marines.
In fact, the then-commander of the Marine Corps, Major General Thomas Holcomb, was openly racist. According to Melton McLaurin, an emeritus professor of history at UNC-Wilmington, and the author of The Marines of Montford Point, Holcomb said “if he had a choice between 250,000 Black Marines and 5,000 whites, he would take the whites.”
McLaurin continued explaining Major General Holcomb’s racist outbursts, stating, “They didn’t want anything to do with African American Marines.” Yet, after President Roosevelt’s order, the base was integrated.
Marine Corps restores buildings that housed Black Marines
One former Marine, Retired First Sgt. William McDowell, who flew to North Carolina to celebrate the Black marines and the saved buildings, confirmed the military tried to hide its explicit racism. “There was a time when the Marine Corps would have rather the fact that it was racially segregated was forgotten about,” he said.
But now the Marine Corps is fighting to save the buildings as an integral piece of history. According to Navy Commander Ross Campbell, Camp Lejeune’s Public Works Officer, “We’ve got to look at sea level rise and make sure that structures that we have at the water’s edge are ready to respond to climate change events.”
The buildings being saved house a complicated history of racism and patriotism. While many Black men yearned to join the military, they were not easily welcomed at Camp Johnson.
Black Marines honored
According to Carroll Braxton, 97, a retired master gunnery sergeant from Virginia, the men were forced to march in the North Carolina heat without any protection from the elements, including mosquitoes. “It was a swamp right near where we was. The drill instructors would take us right by that swamp and make us stand at attention. And he would say, ‘You N-words, did you eat? Well, let them (expletive) mosquitoes eat now!’ “
Yet the Black Marines were integral to the Marine Corps, even in the 1940s. Jack McDowell, a retired first sergeant, noted “On the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, there were African American Marines there. And, in Okinawa, there were a couple of thousand.”
Many also see their time in the Marine Corps as important to remember, despite the hardships. According to McDowell, ”It helped me in many, many ways. It gave me the ambition to go to school and get a degree … the combination of that, plus, the schooling, I found out that I wasn’t afraid to make decisions.”
To learn more about Black Marines at Camp Johnson, visit https://daily.jstor.org/who-were-the-montford-point-marines/