WASHINGTON (AP) —The nation's first black Marines received a rare national tribute when the U.S. House of representatives voted 422-0 recently to award the Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by Congress.
More than 300 lawmakers co-sponsored the legislation approved Oct. 25, providing Republicans and Democrats with a rare moment of bipartisanship. Lawmakers from both parties spoke in favor of the resolution, which was sponsored by Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.
In a separate move, the Marine Corps is planning to teach all Marines next year about Montford Point, the base near the coastal town of Jacksonville, N.C., that the corps set up for blacks to keep them separate from white Marines. It operated from 1942 to 1949.
The corps up until now has not actively broadcast the painful chapter in the 235-year-old history of an institution that still is largely white, especially in the higher ranks where fewer than 5 percent of officers are black.
Gen. James Amos, whose own 2010 appointment made him the first Marine aviator named to the Corps' top job, has made diversifying the staunchly traditional branch a top priority.
Amos has ordered commanders to be more aggressive in recommending qualified black Marines for officer positions. The corps this summer named the first black general, Maj. Gen. Ronald Bailey, to lead its storied 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Marine Corps to accept blacks. The Marine Corps was the last military branch to do so.
The story of the first black Marines is a part of history few Americans — and even fewer Marines — have learned. Unlike the Army's Buffalo Soldiers or the Army Air Corps' Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines have never been featured in popular songs or Hollywood films or recognized nationally.
They received their basic training adjacent to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where conditions were harsh and the treatment from their fellow Marines could be even harsher. They were not allowed to enter Camp Lejeune unless accompanied by a white officer. In the few times they participated in training exercises, they could not eat until the white Marines had finished. They were routinely passed over for promotions.
About 19,000 men trained at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949. Most have since died. Eugene Groves, a staff sergeant who fought in Korea, was one of four Montford Point veterans on hand for the vote. The lawmakers gave them a standing ovation shortly before the vote.
Groves, who trained at Montford Point in 1946, said he appreciated the recognition. He served in the Korean War and said he felt for a time like the Marine Corps did not want to acknowledge the Monford Marines’ service.
“They did not want us involved in the history,” Groves said. “It's been a hard fight.'”
Photo: U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown