Story by Sgt. Marcy Sanchez
PORT ROYAL, S.C. – African-American service in the United States military can be traced back to the country’s inception. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that service members were truly integrated in military units.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 permitting African-American recruitment in the Marine Corps.
These recruits were not sent to the swamps of Parris Island, S.C., or the hills of San Diego, Calif.; rather they were segregated and sent to basic training at Montford Point, N.C.
Between 1942 and 1949 about 20,000 African-American recruits attended basic training at Montford Point. One of those recruits was George Jackson.
“At the time, [Jackson] was joining an organization that was getting ready to fight in a World War, in a country that wasn’t always kind to African-Americans,” said Brig. Gen. Terry Williams, the commanding general of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island / Eastern Recruiting Region. “You have to ask yourself why somebody would fight for a country that in some places [African-Americans] were not treated very well.”
In 2012, Congress authorized the Congressional Gold Medal to be awarded to each of the 20,000 Montford Point Marines or their families to recognize the accomplishments and sacrifices during a time of segregation.
Jackson, who served from 1942 – 1969, retired at the rank of master sergeant from the Marine Corps and passed away in 1987, 27 years before his service to his country and Corps would be recognized.
On Oct. 2, Jackson’s widow, Ella Jackson, 93, of Port Royal, S.C., accepted the Congressional Gold Medal on her late husband’s behalf.
“He never mentioned Montford Point or training in segregation,” said Ella. “My only regret is that he isn’t living today so that he can enjoy this as well.”
Jackson, and other Montford Point Marines, paved the way for generations of great Marine leaders, from Medal of Honor recipients to politicians and NASA astronauts. Congressional Bill 224, which authorized the Congressional Gold Medal to be awarded to the Montford Point Marines, lists the first African-American Marine senior drill instructors. The list of eight platoons at Montford Point includes George Jackson, by name, as the senior drill instructor for the 23rd platoon in 1943; a year after Jackson had enlisted.
According to the Montford Point Marines Association, prior to the Montford Point Marines, the Marine Corps was an all-white organization and initially planned to return to that staffing after the World War II.
“The Montford Point Marines came into existence when the Marine Corps finally decided to integrate, the last of the services to do so,” said Williams, who is the first black commanding general of MCRD Parris Island / ERR. “The plan was, after the war was over, to push [African-Americans] all out. I wouldn’t be here today, if her husband hadn’t made all those sacrifices.”
In 1944, Gen. Alexander Vandegrift, then Commandant, Medal of Honor recipient and hero of Guadalcanal, observed the courage of black Marines in hand-to-hand combat on the island of Saipan and said, “The experiment with the negro Marines is over. They are Marines … Period!”
The significance of the Montford Point Marines wasn’t realized until recently, as Marine Corps history lessons never mentioned anything about segregation.
“I did not become aware of the significance of Montford Point Marines until after I was a Gunnery Sergeant,” said retired Sgt. Maj. James A. Moore, the national chaplain for the Montford Point Marine Association. “I went to school at what is now Camp Johnson (formerly Montford Point) I never knew the significance, nobody ever told me.”
Moore, who served in the Marine Corps for 27 years, was the first African-American sergeant major of MCRD Parris Island / ERR. He credits the Montford Point Marines for their accomplishments and opening doors to African-Americans that were previously closed.
“Many days I looked at a picture on the wall of Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson (a Montford Point Marine) and I credited them with me being who I was,” said Moore. “To me that was the significance of it, I always understood that I stood on the shoulders of men like Master Sgt. Jackson.”
Early in Moore’s career he served as a drill instructor, teaching history to recruits at Parris Island but never knowing or teaching anything about Montford Point Marines.
“The day that I found out the truth about Montford Point and Montford Point Marines, I cried because I felt so inadequate because it was a huge part of Marine history and who I was,” said Moore. “I grew up in the segregated South, so I could relate to [segregation] but never knew it existed in (Marine Corps) history and the Marine Corps was the last service to actually integrate.”
In 2011, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, addressed the Montford Point Marines Association’s 46th annual convention. During his address he mentions many African-American pioneers including George Jackson, stating that some men like Jackson had previously served in the military but when the Marine Corps opened their doors to all, [Jackson and others] simply wanted to be U.S. Marines.
During his address, Amos mentioned the congressional bill authorizing the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the 20,000 Marines who trained at Montford Point. Before Amos, no other commandant had attempted to honor the Montford Point Marines with such a highly-ranked award.
“I truly believe that what General Amos has done in the last four years, has been more than all the commandants combined when it comes to Marine Corps history and race relationships,” said Moore.
According to Ella Jackson, George Jackson loved his country and the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal proved to her that his country loved him as well. Ella Jackson described the medal as “beautiful” and would hate to put it down.
“Today our Corps is more diverse than at any time in our history,” said Amos. “At stations and bases here in the U.S. and overseas … at sea on board amphibious ships … and in combat zones such as the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, African-American Marines serve with distinction and honor.