Congress Considers Honor for First Black Marines

The historic Montford Point Marines may finally be recognized for their brave service.

Posted: 10/24/2011 10:32 AM EDT
Carrel Reavis, 88, at left and far right, was one of the Montford Point Marines, the Corps' first black recruits. They did not train at Camp Lejeune with whites but at Montford Point, a base near Jacksonville, N.C. It's a story seldom told that the Corps plans to give its due.

Montford Point Marine Carrel Reavis, 88. (Photo: AP)

Nearly 70 years after they braved the twin ills of racism and segregation to serve their country, the all-Black Montford Point Marines may receive the Congressional Gold Medal Tuesday, the nation's highest civilian honor.

The little-known group was the Marine Corps’s first group of Black recruits formed in 1941 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Marines to accept African-Americans. Although the Corps was the last military branch to begrudgingly accept Blacks, now, its highest in command is leading the charge to honor the Montford Point Marines and embrace the Corps’s rich but painful history.

"Every Marine — from private to general — will know the history of those men who crossed the threshold to fight not only the enemy they were soon to know overseas, but the enemy of racism and segregation in their own country," said Commandant Gen. James Amos, the Corps’s highest-ranking officer, according to the Associated Press.

Amos, who is white, has launched a campaign to get the Montford Point Marines recognized in the same manner as the Tuskegee Airmen. He has been busy lobbying Congress to grant the Montford Point Marines the civilian medal, which was given to the Tuskegee airmen in 2006.

"It's long overdue," Amos said.

And there are other reasons for Black Marines, new and old, to be excited about changes occurring in the Corp. This summer, the first black general, Maj. Gen. Ronald Bailey, was named to lead its storied 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.

Montford Point is the base near Jacksonville, N.C. that the Corps designated for its Black troops. The base operated from 1942 to 1949 and former Marines say it was a sad corollary to the all-white Camp Lejeune, where Black recruits were not allowed unless accompanied by a white officer. Montford Marines said that even when they were allowed on Camp Lejeune’s grounds, they were forced to wait to eat until all the white Marines had finished.

"Montford Point was hell, really," Oscar Culp, an 82-year-old WWII veteran and Montford recruit, told the Associated Press. "The water was bad. The barracks were made out of some kind of cardboard. It was cold in the winter. There was ice on the deck where we would sleep."

In addition to the poor accommodations, the Montford recruits were subjected to violent verbal and physical abuse from their white superiors who, they say, regularly expressed their dismay about the addition of Blacks to the Corp.

"You just had to take it, take a rifle snapped across your head or be kicked. It didn't happen to me, but I saw it happen to other people," Culp said. "I really try to forget about the worst things that happened."