MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, S.C. -- Today's generation of Marines serve in a fully integrated Corps where African-Americans constitute one-fifth of the Corps total end strength. African-American officers and enlisted are omnipresent and their service is such a normal part of Marine life that it often escapes special notice.
As a special commemoration for those first African-Americans who blazed the trail for serving in the Marine Corps, South Carolina State University, in collaboration with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, created The Montford Point Marines Project, a documentary featuring the Corps' first black Marines. The universities were given funding through a grant by the Department of the Navy, Office of Naval Research to construct the project, which premiered at SCSU in Orangeburg, S.C., March 12.
The legacy of African-Americans serving in the military dates back to the Buffalo soldiers serving in the American Civil War and the Indian Wars and Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. One of the perhaps lesser-known significant times were the first blacks in the Corps - the Montford Point Marines.
From its origin, the Marine Corps refused to recruit African-Americans and other minorities until President Franklin D. Roosevelt's creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1941. This forced the Corps, despite objections from its leadership, to begin recruiting African-American Marines in 1942. The Marines' first black recruits received basic training at the segregated Montford Point Base adjacent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and proceeded to face the same racial discrimination while fighting in World War II until 1949.
To show the support of the modern day Marine Corps and represent the Air Station, a small group of Fightertown Marines volunteered to attend the premiere and to pass on to other Marines the importance of the event.
“By presenting this documentary and hopefully making it nation-wide, we are honoring and re-living the legacy of the Marines of Montford Point,” said Dr. Learie Luke, an interim chair for the Department of Social Sciences at SCSU. “These men opened a gateway for blacks in today's Corps without any recognition. They helped contribute to stop segregation by proving themselves worthy.”
According to Luke, the process of creating the documentary took several years and involved filming at varied locations. The film included interviews, pictures and video footage of Montford Point Marines to help tell the story of racial segregation and hardships they faced as being the first blacks in the Corps.
To help remember the Corps' first black Marines, the Montford Point Association was started in 1965 in Philadelphia, Penn., according to retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Geeter, the president of the Montford Point Marines Association.
Geeter was a recruiter in Chicago when he volunteered to be part of a color guard for the association and found out about the Montford Point Marines.
“The history of Montford Point, and understanding it became an interest for me right away,” said Geeter. “These Marines had successfully accomplished all adversities from the front, being the first ones. It's really about time that they get the recognition they deserve and worked hard for.”
Geeter also encourages young Marines to learn more about the history of Montford Point.
“I hope the Marine Corps starts incorporating the knowledge of these Marines during recruit training,” Geeter said. “Not only does this documentary provide the history - which is part of the Corps - but also shows no matter the situation, these Marines prevailed, like any Marine should.”
The Fightertown Marines who had attended the viewing of the documentary were able to bring back to the Air Station a little more knowledge about their Marine Corps.
“Going to the documentary was a great opportunity,” said Lance Cpl. Mike Corral, a P-19 operator with Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting. “We learned about the birth of the Marine Corps, the first woman Marine, the beginning of Marine Corps Aviation as well as many other things, but I had never heard about Montford Point before. Taking the day to go and see the documentary and meet some of those actual Marines is an experience that I can apply to my Marine Corps knowledge.”