This post comes from the exhibit catalog for “Right to Serve, Right to Lead: Lives and Legacies of the USCT,” an exhibition in Special Collections and College Archives at Musselman Library, Gettysburg College. During the spring of 2017, we asked the CWI Fellows to select a item on exhibit and discuss its history and context. The resulting exhibit catalog is available at Special Collections, where the exhibit will run through December 18, 2017.
In the century that followed the Civil War, Jim Crow wormed its way into the heart of every American institution—including the military. Despite the illustrious tradition laid down by black servicemen in the Civil War, the racial norms of the post-war years worked to beat their successive generations back into the shadows. Many branches—including the Marine Corps—entirely banned African Americans from serving. Even traditionally inclusive institutions, such as the often short-handed Navy, relegated blacks to menial roles. Beginning in 1893, they could serve only as cooks and cleaners aboard U.S. ships.
Under pressure from civil rights groups, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in 1941, prohibiting hiring discrimination in industries producing crucial war materiel. In response to the intensifying pressure provided by the Double V campaign – and increasing concern over the nation’s public image – the president also prodded the U.S. military to create new opportunities for black men in all branches of service. Within a year, the United States Marine Corps founded Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, North Carolina. This camp produced the first black Marines since the American Revolution.
During World War II, over 13,000 Montford Point (MP) Marines served in the Pacific Theater. Most served in dangerous yet thankless support roles, bringing ammunition to the front and carrying the dead and wounded out of combat. Despite their non-combat designation, members of Ammunition and Depot Companies saw action at amphibious landings and thick fighting on Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and many other battlefields.
With the war ended, and the mud and blood left behind for the trappings of civilian life, the MP Marines found new ways to fight for democracy and equality at home. Many who returned lent the determination and talent they developed in the Corps to the budding Civil Rights Movement. In doing so, they immortalized the legacy of the Montford Point Marines, helped change the moral landscape of America, and lived out the highest principles of the Marine Corps.
In recognition of their immense contribution to the nation and the human ideals for which America stands, in 2011 President Barrack Obama awarded the MP Marines the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian award for distinguished achievement. Fortunately, Ernest Alfred Smith, a veteran of the fighting on Saipan and Iwo Jima, lived to receive his award in person. Although he has since passed, his daughters, Dr. Deborah M. Smith, and Stephanie C. Smith, USMC Colonel, retired, have carried on his legacy in their professional lives.
McLaurin, Melton A. The Marines of Montford Point: America’s First Black Marines. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Randall Library, University of North Carolian Wilmington. “Montford Point Marines: Loyalty and Service in the Face of Prejudice and Discrimination.” Accessed 15 March 2017.
National Montford Point Marine Association, Inc. “History.” Accessed 16 March 2017.