The Legacy of the Montford Point Marines

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2012 Nov Montford Point Marines in ranks resizedby Rebecca Brittingham

The hour in history was critical. Times were uncertain. Fear rumbled the globe plunging America into the second great World War.  In the midst of opposition and segregation, a small band of military men emerged leaving a legacy that a group in Chesapeake, VA has vowed to share and keep alive. This is the largely untold story of The Montford Point Marines – America’s first African American Marines.  They fought two battles; one on foreign soil, but also the battle against segregation here at home for the right to fight in the military.

Nine of the original 500 Montford Point Marines reside right here in Chesapeake, including: William A. Brown, SSGT, Robert E. Nichlos, Cpl. Leroy W. Cason, Cpl. and John R. Johnson, Jr. Sgt. Chesapeake has also become the home of Dr. James Averhart, the National president of the Montford Point Marine Association (MPMA),  a non-profit veteran organization that commemorates the legacy of the first African Americans marines.   

Averhart’s journey as a young man from Alabama, to a 25-year Marine speaks volumes of the impact this organization has had on his life. After Averhart served in Desert Storm, he wrestled with the idea of leaving the Marine Corps. When he shared his intentions with his platoon sergeant, his leader introduced him to the legendary Montford Point Marine, the late Sgt. Maj. Edgar Huff.

“What he told me changed my life,” Averhart said. “The things they endured caused me to fall in love with the ancestral anchoring of this branch of service.”

The legacy of the Montford Point Marines began during World War II.  In response to the scarcity of soldiers, President Roosevelt forced the Marine Corps to recruit African American Marines. These recruits, who gave up everything – their lives, prestigious jobs, and families – were trained at Montford Point at Camp Lejeune, NC, an all-black training camp.

From 1941-1949, until segregation was banned from the military, about 20,000 African American Marines trained at Camp Lejeune, 342 miles away from their white counterparts.  They endured criticism, ridicule, name calling, hatred and animosity. “These men stayed in an environment in which they were discriminated against,” said Averhart. When they could have left, they chose to remain and fight to the end.

The original intent was to discharge all African Americans following the end of World War II, keeping the Marine Corps an all-white organization. Throughout World War II, attitudes changed, as the Montford Point Marines proved that militaristic duties and abilities were not determined by one’s skin color. 

Averhart explains that he is indebted to these men and their service. “I am able to do what I do today because of those men,” Averhart said. They paved the way and made it possible for others to follow in their footsteps.

The Montford Point Marine Association was birthed in Philadelphia, but has established subsequent charters in over eleven additional cities. Today the Association proudly boasts of 40 active chapters divided into four regions nationwide.  The organization supports educational assistance programs, veterans’ programs, and community services to strengthen the social conditions of the growing population of disabled military veterans and senior citizens. 

Although some of these men are ashamed and don’t talk about their training at Montford Point, Averhart continues nationwide outreach to get verification of service dates and other documents to harness the stories of these heroic troops. “It is my duty to do everything to preserve their legacy,” Averhart says.

In November, 2011, The Montfort Point Marine Association reached a pivotal momentwhen President Obama awarded the Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Award, the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. However, it was no easy matter. For six years, the marines, led by Dr. Averhart, walked the hallways of their Congressmen, knocked on doors and petitioned for a chance to share the legacy of the Montford Point Marines.

At the helm of the Montford Point Marines, Averhart looks forward to dedicating the Montford Point Marine Monument to his historical predecessors in Jacksonville, NC in August, 2013. This monument will help preserve a part of history that many have forgotten.“These men paved a way for us,” Averhart said, “We need to give back to them.”  Freedom comes at a price, but keeping freedom comes at a greater cost. At times, discrimination and hatred has interfered with the ability to recognize those who have fought the hardest.  Such is the case with the Montford Point Marines. In the midst of hardship, animosity, and hatred, the Montford Point Marines did not shy away. They came to fight because they were needed, and chose to stay and fight to the end. Averhart said, the Montford Point Marines “proved that patriotism is indeed colorless.”

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