Headlines September 20, 2004 UNCW Documentary Examines Experiences of First African-American Marines
Sept. 20, 2004
WILMINGTON, NC – In a race against time, the largely untold story of the nation’s first African-American Marines will at last be made known through a broadcast quality video documentary. More than 20,000 African-Americans trained in segregated facilities between 1942 and 1949 at Montford Point, N.C., and became the first African-Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corps.
In July, Congress approved $500,000 through the Department of Defense to produce the documentary, a joint effort of the University of North Carolina Wilmington and South Carolina State University in Orangeburg, S.C., working closely with the Montford Point Marine Museum at Camp Lejeune, N.C. The award was made possible due to diligent efforts of South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Representative James Clyburn, also of South Carolina, was also supportive of the project.
“All Montford Point veterans encountered are anxious to see their story told to the American people, as well they should be,” said Dr. Melton McLaurin, professor emeritus of history at UNCW and writer/director of the documentary. “Theirs is a story of incredible loyalty and service to the nation in the face of prejudice and discrimination. They not only were the first African Americans to serve as Marines, they also integrated the Marine Corps at the unit level during the Korean War.
“They have been an overlooked part of what Tom Brokaw labeled the ‘Greatest Generation.’ This documentary will introduce the American public to their accomplishments, to their courage, both moral and physical, and to their loyalty to their country,” McLaurin said.
From its inception until 1942, the Marine Corps refused to recruit African-Americans, American Indians and other minorities. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission in 1941 forced the Corps, despite objections from its leadership, to begin recruiting African-American Marines in 1942. The Marines’ first black recruits received basic training at the segregated Montford Point Base adjacent to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and would continue to do so until 1949.
Some of those trained at Montford Point saw action in the Pacific Theater at places like Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, while most served in support units in the United States and overseas. After the Second World War, thousands who trained at Montford Point, until the segregated camp closed in 1949, made the Corps their career, and many saw combat duty in the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War. The story of these men who desegregated the Marine Corps and loyally served their country in three major wars is largely unknown to the American public.
In addition to McLaurin, UNCW personnel involved in the project include Dustin Miller, director of UNCW-TV. Finney Greggs, retired Marine first sergeant and director of the Montford Point Marine Museum, will also work closely with the project, as will Clarence Willie, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel, now serving as superintendent of schools in Fairfield County, S.C. Much of the work at South Carolina State University will be coordinated by project investigator Dr. Learie Luke, interim chair of South Carolina State University’s Department of Social Sciences.
In many ways, the project is a race against time. Many of the Montford Point veterans are no longer alive and others are in ill health. Greggs estimates that some 1,500-2,000 Montford Pointers are still alive, but of those, only about half are ambulatory.
Since 2001, the UNCW administration has supported the project in its early phases. This support enabled UNCW-TV, working with McLaurin and Willie, already to record 43 Montford Point veterans, with plans to tape at least 10 more including David Dinkins, former mayor of New York City, by the end of October 2004.
While South Carolina State will administer the grant, UNCW will be responsible for several aspects of the documentary’s development, including video production and editing. UNCW also plans to post portions of the interviews and other material gathered for the documentary on a Web site through Randall Library so people around the world can learn about the Montford Point Marines.
Assisting with archival research and finding music appropriate for the documentary will be SCSU professor of United States history, Dr. William Hine as well as students. SCSU also expects to prepare lessons plans to be used with the documentary in elementary and secondary schools.
McLaurin hopes to have a rough cut of the documentary ready by July in time to show it at the 40th annual convention of the Montford Point Marines Association in Chicago. The finished product should be completed by Sept. 30, 2005, when the federal fiscal year ends.
“With this grant from Congress, we have the money to make a first-rate documentary,” said McLaurin. “Our goal is to have it aired nationally on PBS.”