Newsletters & Information > Boy Scouts to the Montford Marines
Boy Scouts to the Montford Marines

Feb 2, 2006

by MICHAEL J. MISHAK

As Americans celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of
World War II this year, one group of distinguished veterans
is proudly marking another occasion: the breaking of the
color barrier in the U.S. Marine Corps.

More than two decades before the Civil Rights Act was
signed into law, the Montford Point Marines opened a door
that had been closed to the black community for 167 years.

For Washington, who was living in Mt. Airy at the time,
enlisting in the Marine Corps was just one milestone in a
life of firsts. “There are far more opportunities now than
there were then,” Washington said in an interview last
week. “But in 1942, the country needed shaking up.”

Many of the Montford Point veterans called Philadelphia
home after the war, including Frederick C. Branch, the
Marine Corps’ first black commissioned officer, and Cecil
B. Moore, the legendary civil-rights firebrand. In 1965, a
group of local veterans founded the Montford Point Marine
Association here and staged their first reunion in Center
City that year. The group has grown to 28 chapters
nationwide.

For the most part, Washington, who now resides in
Montgomery County, said he has been reluctant to talk about
his experiences, but cornered last week by a Local reporter
at Springfield Residence, the assisted-living facility near
Chestnut Hill where he’s staying for two weeks while his
family tours Europe, the sharp-witted 95-year-old veteran
had little choice. “Talking too much can get you in trouble
in the Marine Corps,” he quipped. “But they’ve got me held
captive here.”

Born in 1910, Washington was raised in a Center City row
home on Saint James Street, just around the corner from the
Philadelphia Free Library, which was then located at 13th
and Locust streets. Though his parents were devout
Baptists, they took their son to the neighborhood Episcopal
church because it was closer. Washington learned his work
ethic from his father, a maintenance worker at a hosiery
factory who often worked seven days a week but was paid for
only five. “He was married to that building,” Washington
said.

Life in a segregated society held little opportunity for
blacks, but one man in Washington’s life saw fit to change
that. E. Stanton Smith, a black Boy Scout master, enrolled
Washington, along with two other black Scouts, in a summer
camp program at Treasure Island, an exclusive reservation
on the Delaware River. Smith “conveniently forgot” to
include the young boy’s last name, instead using his
Dutch-sounding middle name “Vanderlippe,” Washington said.

When the three scouts arrived it was apparent that they
were the first black Scouts to set foot on Treasure Island.
“Those people never said anything in words,” Washington
said. “But they were whispering among themselves.”
Separated from the white Scouts, the boys were ushered into
the mess hall and served lemonade while camp officials
huddled nearby, he said. The camp’s chef, and its only
black employee, emerged from the kitchen to talk with the
Scouts. “The whole time I was saying to myself, ‘Something
is wrong,’” Washington said.

One camp administrator noticed Washington’s bugle and was
surprised to learn the young Scout could play 98 different
calls. The talent, which Washington developed by practicing
to a record his father bought from a second-hand store,
earned him an extra week’s stay as the camp’s bugler. For
Washington, the event was one in a series of firsts.

Graduating from Thomas Durham Elementary School in the top
of his class, Washington was selected as one of the few
blacks admitted to the city’s prestigious Central High
School, where he said he “walked very carefully.” Still, he
insists that he was treated “very decently” by most of the
student body and that his race mattered little to the
school’s professors, who would “break off a piece of chalk
and sail it by your head like a bullet if they caught you
daydreaming.” Then, when his mother took ill from a heart
condition in his sophomore year, Washington dropped out to
work full-time as a waiter at the Stenton Hotel.

While the extra income helped to supplement the $10 a week
his father earned, his parents didn’t take the news well.
They marched him back to Central, and though he had only
missed a month of classes, the school’s president deemed it
too long of a gap to readmit him. Washington was
devastated, saying his decision to drop out resulted in
many sleepless nights and ultimately stomach ulcers.

He spent the next few years finishing his education at
night while holding a day-job as a warehouse worker for the
Philadelphia Board of Education. By the early 1930s,
Washington had graduated with honors from Central and
sought a promotion. “[The school board] told me there were
no coloreds in the administration,” Washington said. It was
the first of several such encounters with the
discriminatory policies of his employer.

Washington traces his interest in the Marine Corps back to
September 1926 when, at 16-years-old, he read that world
heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey refused to fight
ex-champ Jack Johnson, or any other black fighter. “Dempsey
said blacks should not be in the business of fighting,”
Washington said. “He called us ‘wild animals.’ That always
left a bad taste in my mouth.” That month, in Philadelphia,
ex-Marine Gene Tunney wrested Dempsey’s title by a
unanimous 10-round decision. Washington was thrilled. “I
thought, ‘Damn! A Marine did that,’” he said.

But the U.S. Marine Corps was an exclusive group. While
other branches of the military had opened the door for
blacks — albeit as chefs, stewards and messmen — the
Marines upheld a policy of exclusion until June 1941 when
President Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 8802, which
provided for the full participation of all citizens in the
armed services regardless of race. The Marine brass
resisted but were ordered the following year to open their
enlistment rolls to blacks, breaking a 167-year-old
barrier.

A 31-year-old Washington jumped at the chance to enlist, a
remarkable reaction for a black man in a country where Jim
Crow laws and lynching were still very much alive. “Most of
my friends thought I was crazy,” Washington said. “But I’m
an opportunist.”

He sought change from within the institution. “My kind of
colored people, we don’t complain. I thought, ‘Let them
gripe. What is there that I could be doing? There’s some
good in segregation. I just have to find it.’”

Living in Mt. Airy at the time, Washington took and passed
the Marines entrance exam. But, “when the time came to go,
there was nowhere to go,” he said. Pending the completion
of segregated training facilities at Montford Point, near
Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, the military issued
Washington a deferred-enlistment card. He would flash the
card countless times in appearances before the local draft
board over the next year. He was repeatedly told to enlist
in the Army or quit his job with the school board for one
that was war-related, he said.

In an effort to satisfy the demands, Washington enrolled in
a mechanical drafting course, one of many war-training
classes that was offered at Dobbins Vocational School at
the time. There, he met Carrissima, the only other black
student in the class and the woman he would marry four
years later. At 95, Washington recalls their first meeting
as if it were yesterday. “Wednesday, July 22, 1942, 7
p.m.,” he said. “She had a red Hibiscus flower in her hair
and the look on her face said, ‘Don’t you dare speak to
me.’”

It took months to work up his nerve, but Washington rose to
the occasion during a power blackout after class one
evening. In the darkness, he walked Carrissima from the
school to her trolley stop at 15th Street and Lehigh
Avenue. The relationship blossomed but was cut short when
Washington received word that he was to report for duty.
Though the couple had known each other only for a matter of
months, Washington promised his girlfriend he would marry
her once the war had ended.

For the next three years, Carrissima wrote him letters
almost daily, always enclosing either a stick or chewing
gum or a dime, Washington said. Before his departure, she
gave him a religious token, which he placed behind his
military identification card and still carries to this day.


In 1943, Washington reported to Montford Point in North
Carolina where he and his platoon were among the first
Marines to be trained by black drill instructors. The camp
had graduated its first class the previous year and blacks
gradually replaced white officers. Washington trained under
a black instructor, who older recruits said was more
vicious than the “redneck” officer that had trained them,
he said. “Those were tough times,” Washington said. But
recruits were aware of the significance of their service
and felt pressure to perform, he said.

While most of his platoon was eventually assigned to a
depot company in the South Pacific, Washington was selected
for officer candidate school. “Most of those guys were
buried in the South Pacific,” Washington said. “My head was
buried in books.” Assigned to a military police unit, he
was promoted to the rank of corporal and later ran the
base’s bureau of identification, where he was responsible
for taking field photographs and producing identification
cards for all the facility’s personnel.

He earned the nickname “the good corporal” among the
troops, but discouraged soldiers from using it for fear of
reprisals from his superiors. “The sergeants were watching
me,” Washington said.

Though he was among those who were offered further
promotion for extending their service, Washington chose to
return to Philadelphia when the war ended in 1945. A job
and a fiancée were waiting for him.

Washington had hoped his military service would convince
the city’s school board to move him from a warehouse detail
to the business office. Add B. Anderson, the board’s
business manager and chief powerbroker, was hardly
impressed.

Donning dress blues, Washington met with Anderson and asked
for an administrative assignment. After all, the veteran
said, he had completed two years of accounting coursework
at Temple University. Holding a stack of recommendation
letters from Washington’s college professors and Marine
commanders, Anderson seemed annoyed, Washington said. “Open
the door to the business office,” the administrator told
him. “Look to the left and to the right, then we’ll talk
about it.” Washington took a quick look and shut the door.
“There are no colored people in the business office,”
Anderson said. “I don’t know why you still don’t understand
that.”

Straining to maintain composure, Washington remained
silent. Eventually Anderson issued a letter that placed
Washington behind a desk issuing tools to maintenance
workers. He stayed there for 17 years. In 1962, after
Anderson’s death, Washington said he was “kicked upstairs”
to the school board’s accounting department in the wake of
the school reform movement headed by Richardson Dilworth.
There, Washington quickly rose to the level of supervisor
and ran the department’s maintenance and operations
division until his retirement in 1979.

It was also in the 1960s that Washington was appointed to
the draft board, a distinction shared by three blacks
statewide at the time, he said.

After retiring from what became the School District of
Philadelphia, Washington landed an accounting job with the
federal Interstate Commerce Commission until the agency
folded in 1995. He worked for another three years in the
passport office of the U.S. Custom House at 2nd and
Chestnut streets, the place where he had taken his Marine
Corps entrance exam more than a half-century earlier.

Now, residing in Laverock, Pa. with Carrissima, his wife of
nearly 60 years, Washington remains active in his church
and keeps an eye out for the next opportunity.

“I resent the fact that I get up every morning ready to go
by 6:45 a.m. and I just have a cup of coffee,” Washington
said. “I wish I were taking the R7 into town and doing the
New York Times crossword puzzle.” Flashing a smile, he
said, “If you know of a job that will have me, please give
me a call.”

 JAMES E STEWART JR PRESIDENT

JOHN TILLMAN VICE PRESIDENT

Historical advisor Byron Stewart PhD

 

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