JACKSONVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – In June of 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission.
That decision banned discriminatory employment practices by federal agencies, unions and companies involved in World War II. Roosevelt’s order also led to change in the military.
“What made me want to be a Marine … I wanted to get into the war, and they told me I couldn’t be a Marine.”John L. Spencer, Montford Point Marine
On August 26, 1942, the first African-American recruits entered the United States Marine Corps. Their training site was Montford Point, a corner of land jutting out into the New River near Camp Lejeune.
The Black men arriving there were in the service, but things were far from equal.
“Those Marines came right to Montford Point, North Carolina. They were trained in segregation from their counterparts, Caucasian Marines.” said Tikishia Smiley, director of the National Museum of the Montford Point Marines.
Smiley said at the time that Black Marines’ only duties in battle were carrying ammunition to their white counterparts and operating anti-aircraft guns. It wasn’t how Black Marines wanted to serve their country, but they carried on.
“They say time goes on and on it won’t wait for anybody … and being like it was, it had to go forward or backwards and in our case, it went forward,” Spencer said.
Spencer was one of the Montford Point Marines who paved the way for future generations of Black troops in the corps. Their first taste of battle came in 1945. There were 2,000 recruits from Montford Point who were among the 20,000 strong Marine forces involved in the invasion of Okinawa.
That’s where Black Marines first joined white Marines on the combat line, pressing the fight against the Japanese.
Another change came three years after that war. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order, establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the U.S. military, regardless of race.
The Navy Department decommissioned the Montford Point segregated camp in September of 1949. Smiley says the lesson learned from the Montford Point Marines comes from the courageous decision those first recruits made.
“It makes me feel good to have survived that,” Spencer said.