When President Roosevelt ordered in 1942 that the Marine Corps be integrated, around 20,000 African-Americans signed up and were accepted for service. These Marines didn’t train at the boot camps most soldiers went to, in South Carolina and California. They instead trained in North Carolina, at a facility called Montford Point.
The first African-Americans in the Air Force and the Army — that’s the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers — have some renown, but the Montford Point Marines have remained relatively unknown.
Last fall, the House and Senate voted unanimously to award the Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal. And today at 3 p.m., President Obama will present the medals to approximately 400 Marines at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Among those who traveled to Washington to receive their medals in person is former New York City Mayor David Dinkins. Dinkins enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1945.
"I figured the best way to be equipped to survive [in the war] was to be well-trained, and I figured to be well-trained, you should be a Marine," Dinkins recalls. "I was about 130 pounds soaking wet, and 17 years old."
While many would-be draftees were fighting to be excused from military service, Dinkins had to travel across the Northeast to find a recruiting post that had not, as he puts it, "filled their quota for Negro Marines". He was finally admitted and trained at North Carolina, but the war ended while Dinkins was still in boot camp.
After the war, Dinkins and his comrades found that American society was still far behind in race relations. He recalled living in Washington, D.C. in the postwar years: "There were places where we could not shop. We couldn't go to the movies downtown, yet some of my classmates had shrapnel in their bodies, but were treated differently."
Dinkins is grateful for the congressmen's efforts. "It's belated in a sense that it should have happened long ago," Dinkins says, "but I'm pleased that it's happened." The Tuskegee Airmen, who Dinkins calls "real heroes", received a collective Congressional Gold Medal in 2007. "It took longer, obviously, to get around to the Marine Corps."