In 1776 and 1777, a dozen Black Marines served in the American Revolutionary War, but from 1798 to 1942, the USMC followed a racially discriminatory policy of denying African Americans the opportunity to serve as Marines.
The USMC opened its doors to blacks in June 1942, with the acceptance of African Americans as recruits in segregated all-black units. Other races were accepted somewhat more easily, joining white Marine units. Spurred by executive orders in 1941 and 1948, the integration of non-white USMC personnel proceeded in stages from segregated battalions in 1942, to unified training in 1949, and finally full integration in 1960.
Blacks fought alongside whites in the Continental Army against Great Britain and in every war up to the War of 1812. The first black American to fight in a Marine role was John Martin, also known as Keto, the slave of a Delaware man, recruited in April 1776 without his owner's permission.
Martin was recruited by Captain Miles Pennington of the Continental brig USS Reprisal. Martin served with the Marine platoon on the Reprisal for a year and a half, involved in hard ship-to-ship fighting, but was lost with the rest of his unit when the brig sank in October 1777. At least 12 other black men served with various Marine units in 1776–1777; more may have been in service but not identified as blacks in the records.
However, in 1798 when the Marine Corps was officially re-instituted, Secretary of War James McHenry specified that no Negro, Mulatto or Indian was to be enlisted. McHenry (November 16, 1753 – May 3, 1816) was an Scotch-Irish American military surgeon and statesman and a signer of the Constitution from Maryland. He was also a slave owner.
Fort McHenry, best known for its role in the War of 1812, when it successfully defended Baltimore Harbor from an attack by the British navy from the Chesapeake Bay is 1814 was named after him. He was a delegate to the Continental Congress from Maryland, and the third United States Secretary of War (1796–1800), under George Washington and John Adams.
The then Marine Commandant, William Ward Burrows, instructed his recruiters that they could make use of Blacks and Mulattoes, but not enlist them. This policy was in line with long-standing British naval practice which set a higher standard of unit cohesion for Marines so that they would remain loyal, maintain shipboard discipline and help put down mutinies.
In the Civil War, some 180,000 African Americans joined the Union Army and mostly served in support roles as teamsters, laborers, construction workers and cooks. A few fought under white officers in segregated units.
In later conflicts, the United States Army used black soldiers in the Spanish–American War and in World War I. However, when the United States Army Air Service was formed, only whites were allowed. The Navy used black sailors as cooks, stewards, construction workers and unskilled labor, but did not train them to fight.
The Marine Corps, being a combat arm of the Navy, did not recruit any black Marines. Instead, the USMC was serviced by US Navy supply personnel including black laborers. Unlike the US Army which had separate regiments that a soldier could remain in for his entire military career, Marines were individually transferred to various ship's detachments and naval bases.
After World War I, the number of blacks in both the Navy and the Army was reduced to about 1.5 percent of the total number of active servicemen. President Franklin D. Roosevelt prohibited racial discrimination in the military mostly because of the growing political power of African Americans in Washington, DC. Civil rights groups were calling for greater equality between the races.
After wars broke out in the late 1930s in Africa, China and Europe, black community leaders determined to use the black workforce's loyalty as leverage to gain greater racial equality at home. In June 1940, the NAACP's magazine published a declaration that the fighting around the world was certainly bad, "but the hysterical cries of the preachers of democracy for Europe leave us cold. We want democracy in Alabama, Arkansas, in Mississippi and Michigan, in the District of Columbia, in the Senate of the United States."
During the 1940 presidential election, both parties courted the black vote and Roosevelt was re-elected partly because substantial numbers of black voters voted for him. In April 1941 the Navy convened a board to discuss expansion of the Marine Corps and Major General Thomas Holcomb, Commandant of the Marines, who lived in Delaware and Washington, DC in his early years and attended private schools, said that African Americans had no right to serve as Marines. He foolishly declared, "If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites."
Holcomb (August 5, 1879 – May 24, 1965) was the Commandant of the Marine Corps from 1936 until 1943 and was the first Marine to achieve the rank of General. After retiring from the Marine Corps, Holcomb served as Minister to South Africa from 1944 to 1948. Today, at the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the main drive entering the base is known as Holcomb Boulevard.
In 1941, civil rights activists pressured Roosevelt to order fair employment for blacks in the federal government and threatened to march on Washington, DC. Roosevelt, anxious to avoid a public relations disaster, issued an Executive Order that eliminated racial discrimination from federal departments, agencies, the military, and from private defense contractors. The march was canceled.
As directed by Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox was forced to accept black recruits and Holcomb proposed a separate battalion of African Americans. They were to be a seacoast defense battalion armed with anti-aircraft and anti-shipping artillery. The battalion would contain a rifle company, special weapons platoons, and a light tank platoon.
On June 1, 1942, the initial group of black Marine recruits were admitted, but they were not immediately trained because separate, segregated facilities had not been completed. Black volunteers began their basic training in August at Montford Point in North Carolina, a satellite base to Marine Barracks, New River, later called Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
By October only about half of the planned 1,200 recruits had passed entrance examination. Holcomb required more than half of the recruits to demonstrate proficiency in typing, truck driving and other specialist skills necessary to run the battalion, but the requirements were dropped because of the difficulty in recruiting those with the necessary skills. Instead recruits were taught specialist skills by white Marine instructors or they were sent to nearby Army schools.
The black recruits were not allowed in Camp Lejeune unless accompanied by a white Marine, and their service papers were stamped "Colored". Even though the U.S. was fully engaged in war, the recruits were assigned to inactive duty in the Marine Corps Reserve. All the enlisted servicemen were black with white officers and drill instructors. The commander of the black Marines at Montford Point was Samuel A. Woods, Jr. (who was white) who worked to enforce segregation, protecting his troops from being detained by local authorities while they were visiting town.
At the time the Marines followed the Army's thinking which believed that officers born in the South somehow had the unique ability to command black troops and Woods fit the pattern since he was from South Carolina. The black Marines referred to him (probably derisively) as "The Great White Father," but his calmness and fairness earned him their respect. Under his leadership racial harassment of black Marines became less frequent, mostly because Woods insisted his Marines exhibit pride and self-confidence and look sharp.
|Training at Montfod Point|
By early 1943, the white drill instructors were leaving for combat assignments and were replaced by black sergeants and corporals. Eventually the Marines formed the 52nd Defense Battalion and both the 51st and 52nd shipped out to fight in the Pacific War, but were only used as defensive units holding land far behind the front lines. About 8,000 of them worked as stevedores and ammunition handlers served under enemy fire during offensive operations in the Pacific. Following the June 1944 Battle of Saipan, USMC General Alexander Vandegrift said of the all-black 3d Marine Ammunition Company: The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.
After World War II, the Marines reduced in size and the number of African-American Marines dropped to 2,000 men, about one-tenth of wartime levels. In 1947, African-Americans in the Marines were forced to choose between returning to civilian life or becoming a stewards (a food service position).
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. By 1949 both the Army and the Marine Corps leadership were still defending their practices of segregation. The Marine Corps had only one black officer among 8,200 white ones. The Navy and the newly formed Air Force announced their intentions to follow the President's order.
President Truman won out and by 1949, all-black Marine units still existed, but the Marines had black and white recruits beginning to train together. The few black USMC officers were assigned exclusively to black units and were not asked to lead white Marines into combat.
In 1952 after two years of the Korean War, the Marines cautiously integrated blacks into combat units. In the late 1950s, black Marines were not rewarded with preferred or high-visibility assignments, such as embassy guard duty and guard duty in the nation's capital.
It wasn't until 1960 that full integration had been completed by the USMC. It has been said that racial tensions flared up through the next decade, a period of civil rights activism in society. I was not aware of any such problems during my time with the Marines in the mid-1960s. I served under black officers and NCOs and they were all respected as much as their white counterparts. In fact, I remember one incident where several white Marines walked out of an eating establishment in segregated North Carolina because the white owner had refused service to a black Marine.
The first African-American officer in the United States Marine Corps was Frederick C. Branch. He was born in Hamlet, North Carolina in 1922, the son of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister. After graduating high school in New York, Branch enrolled at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC before transferring to Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
While enrolled at Temple, Branch received his draft notice from the US Army in 1943 and reported to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for basic training. After reporting to Fort Bragg for induction into the Army, Brach was chosen to become a Marine and was sent to the nearby Camp Montford Point for Recruit Training, becoming one of the more than 20,000 Montford Point (African-American) Marines.
After Recruit Training, Brach applied for Officer Candidate School, but was denied due to his race and was sent to serve with a supply unit supporting operations against the Japanese in the Pacific instead. While serving in the Pacific, Branch's outstanding performance earned him a recommendation for OCS from his commanding officer and he was sent to Purdue University in West Lafaeyette, Indiana, to receive his officer's training; he was he only African-American candidate in a class of 250.
At Purdue, Branch made the dean's list and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on November 10, 1945. Since World War 2 had already concluded, he went into the Marine Corps Reserve. During the Korean War, Branch was re-activated, commanding an antiaircraft training platoon at Camp Pendleton, California. He was discharged from active duty in 1952 and returned to the Reserve.
Three years later, in 1955, having reached the rank of Captain, Branch retired from the Corps due to ongoing discrimination and promises for advanced training were not kept.
Branch had received his bachelor's degree in physics from Temple University in 1947, so after retiring from the Marine Corps, he taught at Dobbins High School in Philadelphia for more than thirty years before retiring in 1988.
In 1999, Branch's wife of 55 years passed away and six years later, in 2005, Captain Frederick C. Branch passed away after a short illness and was buried at at Quantico National Cemetery in Quantico, Virginia. He was 82 years old.
Although at the time Branch was shabbily treated by the Marine Corps his bravery and determination cannot be denied. He was a pioneer and others followed. Today the Marines offer the Frederick C. Branch Scholarship that offers recipients four year, three year and two year scholarships for students attending or planning to attend one of 17 Historically Black Colleges and Universities. It also pays full tuition and supplementary fees ans pays a monthly stipend.
Branch was a reserve officer so the honor of becoming the first first African-American officer in the regular Marine Corps went to John E. Rudder in 1947. In 1968, PFC James Anderson Jr. became the first African-American Marine to be awarded the Medal of Honor. In 2002, 1st Lt. Vernice Armour became the first African-American female combat pilot in any branch of the American armed forces. And three of the last four Sergeant Majors of the Marine Corps have all been of African descent.