MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- "Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States."
Since September 1941, when the 1st Marine Division set up camp in the middle of a sandy pine forest along the Atlantic seaboard, Camp Lejeune and surrounding installations have been home to substantial benchmarks of the Marine Corps black history.
February marks Camp Lejeune’s remembrance of Black History Month and this year’s Department of Defense theme is "From Slavery to Freedom: The Story of Africans in the Americas".
On the 25th day of June, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 establishing the fair employment practice that began to erase discrimination in the Armed Forces.
Following it’s implementation in 1942, the Montford Point Recruit Depot opened its doors to the Marine Corps’s first black recruits at what is now Camp Johnson, a satalite facility of Camp Lejeune.
Even though the executive order allowed blacks to serve, America was still racially segregated leaving whites to train at Marine Corps Recruit Depots Parris Island, S.C. and San Diego, Calif., and blacks at Montford Point.
With more than 20,000 Marines graduated, Montford Point’s training continued until July, 1948 when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 ending segregation in the armed forces. In September, 1949, Montford Marine Camp was deactivated - ending seven years of segregation, according to the Montford Point Marine Association Web Site located at www.montfordpointmarines.com.
Before the end of segregation, Jacksonville was home to two segregated USO’s.
Circa Spring of 1945 the Jacksonville community requested the opening of a segregated USO on Newbury Street for the Montford Point Marines and when that facility began to degrade a new, still segregated, USO was opened January, 1953 on Poplar Street, said Jack Robinson, retired Marine, researcher of History and author of ‘Captain Otway Burns and his ship Snap Dragon’, which was a historical review of Burns as a privateer during the war of 1812, North Carolina Legislator and Business man.
“The Newbury Street USO was established to fulfill a need for the African American service members. This also includes Army and Navy personnel from Fayetteville, Wilmington and Holly Ridge,” said Robinson.
Upon the closing of the Poplar Street USO the current USO of Jacksonville opened in April, 1942, and began providing support to service members stationed aboard Camp Lejeune and personnel visiting the local area.
Camp Johnson was host to some further historic events when Col. Grover C. Lewis, III took command July 28, 2005, becoming the base’s first black commander.
“It’s certainly an honor to be a base commander alone, but this opportunity is special because it’s the birth place for blacks in the Marine Corps,” said Lewis.
Following Lewis’s assumption of command of Camp Johnson was Col. Adele E. Hodges assuming command of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune from Maj. Gen. Robert C. Dickerson on Jan. 23, 2006 becoming the first ever female black base commander aboard Lejeune.
In an interview with Hodges, she commented about the importance of being care takers of history that occurred here, “There is a lot of history on Camp Lejeune and the surrounding installations such as Camp Johnson and we are responsible for ensuring the past is preserved for the future.”
When asked about the importance of Black History Month aboard Lejeune Hodges responded “Black History Month here should be used as an opportunity to reflect and care about where we came from and where we are going,”
Black history is not exclusive to Camp Lejeune; March 13, 2006 at Marine Corps Air Station New River, Capt. Elizabeth A. Okoreeh-Baah became the first female VM-22 Osprey pilot.
Okoreeh-Baah spent the first five and a half years of her career in the Marine Corps as a CH-46E “Sea Knight” pilot, but when Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-263 began transitioning to the Osprey Program she became one of the first female pilots to begin training on tiltrotor aircraft.
In an interview with Cpl. Jonathan A. Tabb, a combat correspondent for MCAS New River newspaper the RotoVue, Isaac K. Okoreeh-Baah Sr., her father and a native of Ghana, North Africa said, “She’s going to go a long way because she never quits. She can succeed at anything she puts her mind to.”
These events are a small but critical parts of blacks’ service in the Marine Corps and beginning with 20,000 Montford Point Marines, African Americans have continued to add to the brotherhood, the legacy, which is the Marine Corps. By taking the time to remember their trails and accomplishments, the Marine Corps continues to show that without members of all races and backgrounds, the Corps could not continue its mission as the nation’s 9-11 force in readiness.
Black History Months history was created by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History, when he established “Negro History Week" in 1926 as a mechanism for exploring the contributions of African Americans to society. Woodson chose the month of February to correspond with the respective birthdays of Frederick Douglass, a former slave and noted abolitionist, and Abraham Lincoln who signed the emancipation proclamation.