Believe it or not, the Marine Corps was the last military branch to officially accept African Americans within their ranks. On June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the Marines to blacks in the midst of an uproar on both sides (including pressure from his wife, Eleanor) by establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission and advising all branches of the military to give greater opportunities and fairer treatment to African Americans. However, it wasn’t until President Truman issued an executive order that integrated the entire military in 1948. Still, the history of African American service in the Marine Corps is rich. Here are five historic Marine firsts to celebrate Black History Month:
Revolutionary War Heroes
During the War for Independence, about 5,000 African Americans served and sacrificed on the American side. (The British had promised freedom to all slaves willing to escape and fight for the King.) A few of these men served as Marines. Because some of them were slaves, we may never know their stories or their names; however, there are records of John Martin, a slave who was recruited for the Marines without his owner’s permission. He participated in at least one mission on the high seas before dying as a Private when his ship sank. Isaac Walker and Orange (the only name given for him) participated in the battalion that crossed the Delaware River in 1776. They had been recruited at Tun Tavern. Read more.
Montford Point Marines
Between 1942 and 1949, around 20,000 African American Marines were trained in Montford Point, a racially segregated facility that operated at Camp Lejeune. At first, the camp was run by white drill instructors; however, by April of 1943, most of the white officers had been replaced by black NCOs. These first African American Marines served in a variety of capacities, although none were officers. Montford Point Marines were given the task to clean up debris after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Others fought in Iwo Jima. All have been virtually forgotten by time. In 2011, Congress voted to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines and finally honor them for their sacrifice and service to a country that had treated them like second-class citizens. Read more.
Annie Neal Graham
Enlisting in September 1949, Annie Neal Graham holds the distinction as being the first black woman to enlist with the Marines. Read more.
Alfred Masters was the very first African American to become a member of the Marines when he was sworn in to service on June 1, 1942. Read a first-hand account from his wife.
Captain Frederick Branch
Frederick Branch received his commission as a second lieutenant after serving for two years as an enlisted Marine, much of it in the South Pacific during World War II. While he began OCS as one of seven other African Americans, he finished alone in a class of 250. A building in Quantico is named after Branch and the Senate passed a resolution in 1995 to honor the 50th anniversary of his commission. Read more.
Jo is the author of Jo, My Gosh! a blog about her journey as a newlywed military wife. When she’s not working from home, she’s writing, reading, trying new recipes, watching sports or cross stitching. Catch her on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook and say hi!