On Memorial Day, many veterans proudly strutted their military branch’s uniforms before the thousands of people who gathered to observe the annual parade that takes place on Constitution Avenue NW.
One particular group, the Montford Point Marine Association of Washington, D.C., didn’t walk down the noted thoroughfare en masse but instead rode vintage antique cars to symbolize like the veterans, their age and value to the country. The District’s chapter resides in the national Montford Point Marine Association, a nonprofit military veterans organization, founded to memorialize the legacy of the first African Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corps.
While Blacks served in the Marine Corps in 1776 and 1777 during the Revolutionary War, the U.S. instituted a policy of racial exclusion from 1798 to 1942. The Marines essentially operated as a White-male only branch of the military until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt prohibited racial discrimination in federal employment in 1942, pushed by A. Phillip Randolph and other African-American leaders.
African-American Marines received their training at Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C., from 1942 to 1949, when all branches of the military officially and permanently desegregated.
Howard P. Perry became the first Black Marine after the Roosevelt order. Maurice Sonny Ross serves as the president of Montford Point Marine Association’s District chapter and has become an unofficial historian of the Black Marines’ struggle for respect during the Camp Montford era.
“There was a lot of racism and discrimination during those days,” Ross, who served in Vietnam, said. “Blacks were segregated from their White counterparts and that wasn’t just the Marines but all of the branches. Early on, the Montford Marines were supervised by White officers and drill instructors and they weren’t nice at all.”
Ross said Black Marines received harsh punishment for even the most minor of infractions and got verbally and racially harassed and abused. He said Black Marines couldn’t go to Camp Lejeune, for White Marines, unless accompanied by a White Marine and had service papers stamped “Colored.” Needless to say, the facilities at Montford Point did not compare to the modern facility at Camp Lejeune.
Black Marines, Ross said, didn’t receive encouragement to go into the local towns because of fear of violence and retaliation from the White residents.
Nevertheless, the Black Marines fought heroically and received praise from Marine Corp Gen. Alexander Vandergrift in June 1944 for their effort in the Battle of Saipan, saying “the Negro Marines are no longer on trial.”
“They are Marines, period,” Vandergrift said.
Montford Point closed in 1949 as a result of President Truman’s desegregation order and those enlisted went to Parris Island and Camp Pendleton. The Marines fully desegregated by 1950s, during the Korean War.
It has been estimated that more than 20,000 men received their training at Montford Point. The organization got started in Philadelphia in 1965 and Ross his chapter seeks Montford Marines actively.
“We have a chapter of 45 members,” he said. “Eighteen of those who went through Montford Point are still with us.”
Any Marine or member of the military can join the MPMA.
On June 27, 2012, the MPMA received the Congressional Gold Medal for its heroism and fighting for the U.S. even though they went through discrimination and abuse. Ross said he wants to find Montford Marines or the families to get the gold medal to them.
Community service has been become a staple in the District’s chapter.
“We want to reach out to the younger generation,” Ross said. “We want to talk to the children and for them to see some real heroes.”
Ross said his chapter has a program to help the city’s homeless population and during the Christmas holidays, it gives food and gifts to struggling families. The chapter wants to build up its scholarship program, Ross said, “to help children go to college.”
They are planning an October gala to help pay for scholarships, he said. The District’s chapter has active ladies auxiliary that has worked in the community, too, Ross said.
Ross has also worked to try to people to understand the experience of the Montford Marines. For example, he has been critical of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, located in Quantico, Va., of their sparse presentation of the Montford Marines and has worked to get more funds and attention to the Montford Point Museum in Jacksonville, N.C.