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.”