History Of The Black Marine
by U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Seth Rosenberg
Any Marine can quickly recite the birth date of the U.S. Marine
Corps ... November 10, 1775. Recruits and officer candidates
memorize this and many other pieces of knowledge like the first
female Marine, first Marine aviator, and dozens of other historical
figures and events.
However, for our Black brothers and
sisters ... the history seems muddled.
Of course, the record speaks of the Montford Point Marines,
created after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to
desegregate the armed forces. However, specific events, dates, and
names elude the memory of many Marines. After all, Marine Corps
curriculum only added the history of Montford Point in 2011.
With MARADMIN 331/20, the Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. David Berger ordered the removal of public displays of the Confederate battle flag from Marine Corps installations
on June 5, 2020. This graphic honors the Marines of Montford Point with significant photos of Montford Point Marines and the Congressional Gold Medal presented to Montford Pointers. (U.S. Marine Corps layout and Design by Cpl. Seth Rosenberg)
A timeline created by the U.S. Marine Corps Museum provides the
true record: the first Black Marine enlisted almost 170 years before
Montford Point, during the revolutionary war. Capt. Miles Pennington
recruited Private John “Keto” Martin in April of 1776. The person
who enslaved Martin had no idea of his recruitment to the
Martin served aboard the Continental
brig USS Reprisal, participating in a cruise that resulted in the
capture of five British merchantmen. He served on the Reprisal until
1777, when the dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships notes
that the brig was caught in a storm, destroying it and killing all
those aboard but the cook.
Isaac Walker and a man known only
as “Orange” followed Martin, enlisting at Tun Tavern in 1776. Capt.
Robert Mullan inducted them into his company, which was part of a
battalion of Marines raised by Maj. Samuel Nicholas. Mullan’s
company crossed the Delaware River with George Washington and fought
the British at the Battle of Princeton in 1777, cementing Walker and
Orange’s significant role in Marine Corps history.
to the U.S. Marine Corps Museum, at least 13 of the 2,000
Continental Marines were Black.
In 1796, Secretary of War
James McHenry passed an act that banned people of color from serving
in the military. This act remained law until the Emancipation
Proclamation in 1863 allowed people of color to serve in the Army
and Navy, but not the Marines.
President Franklin D.
Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 8802 in 1941, desegregating the
armed forces and jumpstarting recruitment. In 1942, the Marines
established Montford Point as the training ground for the first
Black Marine recruits.
Alfred Masters was the first Marine
to swear in after the order, raising his right hand one minute after
midnight on June 1, 1942, according to his wife’s obituary. Isabell
Masters, Alfred’s wife, would later run for President of the United
States five times, the most of any woman in history.
P. Perry soon joined Masters, later becoming the first Black recruit
by arriving at Montford Point on Aug. 26, 1942. Perry and the
recruits who followed him formed into the 51st Composite Defense
On 14 March 1943, eight Montford Point Marines
earned the title of Drill Sergeant. This marked the first time the
platoons were led by Marines of their color. Gen. Thomas Holcomb,
17th commandant of the Marine Corps, limited the rights given to
enlisted leaders by decreeing that no Black non-commissioned officer
would outrank a white man in the same unit.
The 52nd Defense
Battalion was formed as a sister unit to the 51st after an influx of
recruits at Montford Point during World War II.
Marines first saw combat with the Ammunition and Depot Companies in
the battles of Saipan, Guam, and Peleliu from 1943-1945. Pvt.
Kenneth Tibbs was the first Montford Point Marine to give his life
in combat on June 15, 1944. By war’s end, 87 Montford Point Marines
were killed in action, according to the U.S. Marine Corps Museum.
Only 1,500 Montford Point Marines remained on active duty
after the war. The remainder of the 20,000 Marines trained at
Montford Point received discharge orders.
On Nov. 10, 1945,
Frederick C. Branch made history as the first Black commissioned
officer in the Marine Corps Reserves. He is still honored today with
a scholarship in his name, awarded to individuals who are attending
or are planning to attend historically Black colleges or
In 1948, John Rudder, a prior-enlisted man,
was commissioned as the first Black active-duty commissioned
officer. That same year, President Harry Truman issued Executive
Order 9981, establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in
the military regardless of race.
Black Marines reached many
milestones in the following years, including the first Black female
Marine, Annie Graham in 1949, and the first Black aviator, Frank
Petersen in 1950. Petersen would later become the first Black Marine
Corps General in 1979. On Christmas Eve of 1955, Edgar Huff became
the first Black Marine to earn the rank of Sgt. Maj, the U.S. Marine
Corps History Division notes.
James Anderson Jr., Rodney
Davis, Ralph Johnson, Oscar Austin, and Robert Jenkins Jr. were the
first five Black Marine Medal of Honor recipients, receiving the
Medals posthumously from 1967-1969.
to the Marine Corps History Division, Montford Point was renamed to
Camp Gilbert H. Johnson in April 1974 in honor of Sgt. Maj. Gilbert
Johnson, one of the first Black Marines and alumni of Montford
Point. Johnson had served for six years in the Army and eight years
in the Navy, and upon the issue of Executive Order 8802, Johnson
transferred to the Marine Corps, serving for 17 years.
Johnson was one of only two Black Sergeants Maj. to serve in
World War II. The other was Sgt. Maj. Edgar Huff, who was Johnson’s
brother-in-law. Camp Johnson was the first military installation
named after a Black man.
Alford McMichael became the first Black Sgt. Maj. of the Marine
Corps in 1999, serving in the role for almost four years. Two years
later, Vernice Armour became the first Black female pilot in 2001,
and two years after that, she became the first Black female combat
pilot, after she flew with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron
(HMLA) 169 in the invasion of Iraq.
Marine Corps curriculum adapted to include the struggles,
stories, and history of Montford Point Marines in 2011. The
following year, Montford Point Marines received the Congressional
Gold Medal, adorned with images of the Marines and the phrase “For
outstanding perseverance and courage that inspired social change in
the Marine Corps.”
In April 2020, Gen. David Berger, 38th commandant of the Marine
Corps, banned the display of confederate flags on all Marine Corps
installations. “Only as a unified force, free from discrimination,
racial inequality, and prejudice can we fully demonstrate our core
values,” Berger wrote in a public statement.
Black Marines have a significant role in the Marine Corps since
1776, and continue to be an integral part of the Marine Corps today.
The U.S. benefited greatly from the contributions and sacrifices of
Black Marines and will continue to be molded by them far into the
Please visit the U.S. Marine Corps
Museum site for more information about Marine Corps history or
the history of Black Marines.
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