JACKSONVILLE, N.C. --
When breaking a social mold that has been in place for decades, one will always find some form of adversity. Nothing was more controversial in the mid-20th century than the question of race equality when the black community began taking strides to break free of social oppression.
“When we went marching by, you could see some of the public whispering among themselves,” said retired Gunnery Sgt. James Richardson. “They never expected to see a black man leading a band, especially a military band at that.”
Richardson became the first black Marine Corps drum major in mid-1960s Parris Island, S.C. by leading the Parris Island Marine Band.
“I originally joined as an infantryman in 1958, then (lateral moved) to supply when I reenlisted in 1961,” said Richardson. “One day when stacking crates in a warehouse aboard Camp Lejeune I saw a small band march by. Later I decided to go down and volunteer.”
In doing so, Richardson lat moved again and went to the School of Music in Norfolk, Va., graduating and becoming a drummer in a collateral duty band aboard Camp Lejeune.
Shortly after his assignment to Camp Lejeune, Richardson was deployed to the Vietnam War. Up to this point Richardson said he hadn’t experienced any real racial biases, both ashore and abroad.
“Even in Vietnam when we musicians laid down our instruments and picked up a weapon, we still had each others’ backs,” said Richardson. “There was no time for racism to be between people.”
It was not until Richardson returned from Vietnam and received orders to Parris Island did he begin to be noticed by becoming the bands’ drum major. However, even then he commented on how there was very little opposition toward his new position.
“There were no real problems with the band being lead by a black drum major,” said Richardson. “The band was a real close-knit unit. We traveled all over and did a lot together.”
Richardson went on to describe how, with every band he lead, they were always a single unit.
“If there was any animosity at all, it was basically swept under the rug,” he said.
After his time at Parris Island, Richardson deployed to Vietnam again, afterward returning and receiving orders to Iwakuni, Japan to lead the III Marine Expeditionary Force Band. After his time there, Richardson returned to the School of Music for an intermediate course and once again transferred to Camp Lejeune, leading the 2nd Marine Division Band as well as the Bugle Corps.
“It was about that time I discovered that I was the first black drum major, and it was a really good feeling knowing I was the one,” said Richardson. “It was a breakthrough for Marine Corps bands on the whole, but again bands should always be that tight.”
Most of the confrontation received was not by members of the band but the public they performed for. Every town the played in had a different attitude towards a band with a black drum major, but the biggest accomplishment that Richardson achieved was not that he was the first, but how he handled being the first.
“No matter what happened you could never lose your head; you had to keep your cool and not let anything get to you,” said Richardson.
With every story and instance Richardson recounted he always had a positive outlook; that even though various displays of intolerance toward him being black and leading a Marine Corps band was just something that happened in that era.
“You aren’t leading the band for yourself, you’re doing it for them,” said Richardson. “Whatever happens happens. You do what you want to do.”
Richardson retired from the Marine Corps in 1978 to return to school, eventually earning a degree in business administration. Sixteen years later he retired completely and resides in his Jacksonville, N.C. home.
Being the first of something is not always easy; sometimes people may think it is the worst thing possible. Yet people like James Richardson have proven themselves able to go above and beyond the call of duty by being individuals who carry the whole of a cause on their shoulders and are combated on a daily basis.