The Story of the First Black Marine
Howard P. Perry was the face of a long overdue change in how our nation fought its wars.
The black-and-white photograph looks like one in sixteen million, yet another portrait of a bright-eyed, fresh-faced, all-American World War II recruit. The uniform is crisp; the tie only slightly askew. The cap is part postman, part policeman—back when both those jobs were all male. The recruit’s wide-eyed look telegraphs pride, eagerness, and fear, a logical response considering that more than 400,000 American soldiers would die.
What makes the photo historic? The young Marine pictured, Howard P. Perry, is black.
Private Perry was the first African-American Marine recruit in 167 years.
The few historians who tell Perry’s story report the same facts. He came from Charlotte, North Carolina, remained a private from 1942 through 1944, and served as a cook in the 3371, 51st Defense Battalion. Then, they pull back the historical camera, telling the broader story of integrating America’s Armed Forces.
And what a story it is. The Army’s desegregation in the 1940s anticipated the Civil Rights movement, with grassroots demands from blacks eventually producing statesmanlike changes among whites. The Double V campaign sought victory over fascism abroad and Jim Crow segregation at home. Beyond democracy in Europe, African-Americans insisted: “We want democracy in Alabama, Arkansas, in Mississippi and Michigan, in the District of Columbia,in the Senate of the United States.” This strategy anticipated Martin Luther King’s Cold War linkage, holding America to the ideals it championed against Communism.
The two individuals hailed – or blamed – for swaying President Franklin Roosevelt to start reforming the armed forces were his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the black labor activist A. Philip Randolph. Watching the president inch America into this global, ideological clash, Randolph threatened to embarrass FDR with a march on Washington against the military’s racial segregation. Knowing he could never convince the racist Southerners in his Democratic party to legislate desegregation, Roosevelt bypassed Congress. On June 25, 1941, Executive Order 8802 established the Fair Employment Practices Committee guaranteeing “full participation in the defense program by all persons regardless of color, race, creed, or national origin.”
Especially after America entered what became World War II, the rigid, proud, traditional Marines were particularly resistant. Major General Commandant Thomas Holcomb anticipated “a definite loss of efficiency in the Marine Corps if we have to take Negroes.” Other officers objected, “Eleanor says we gotta take in Negroes, and we are just scared to death; we’ve never had any in; we don’t know how to handle them; we are afraid of them.”
Nevertheless, the government appropriated $750,000 to build barracks at Montford Point, a satellite camp in North Carolina outside what in late 1942 became Camp Lejeune. Through 1949, nearly 20,000 African-American marines would train, suffering and toughening there. Howard Perry reported for duty on August 26, 1942 followed by 12 more black volunteers that day.
These first 1200 recruits and their successors in this segregated unit could not enter the main camp, without a white Marine escort. Their service papers were stamped “colored.” These were among many insults America’s 1.2 million black soldiers endured. In Kentucky, policemen beat three black servicewomen for lingering in a railway’s Whites Only waiting room. In Texas, Richard Carter, an African-American soldier searching for a restaurant to serve him, saw “American MPs and some of Hitler’s bully boys, now prisoners of war” in a Whites Only establishment, “having a ball together, wining and dining. It was sickening.” In southern Indiana, the Tuskegee Airmen protested, demanding entry to the Freeman Field Officers Club that served German POWs but barred these American fighter bombers.
Gradually, the Marines adjusted. By 1947 Marine training directives required “that all men be thoroughly indoctrinated on the principle of the equality of rights and privileges of all marines, and that they should be made to understand that it is their duty to set an example in conduct and deportment, and assist the incoming negro marines.”
During the three-week Battle of Saipan in June-July, 1944, members of the all-black 3rd Marine Ammunition Company bravely unloaded ammunition during amphibious landings, distributed it onshore, then became “Black Angels,” often fighting with the guns of fallen white soldiers. Afterwards, General Alexander Vandergrift concluded: “The Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are just Marines period.” Still, most of the 13,000 African American Marines saw minimal action.
After the war, A. Philip Randolph spearheaded another campaign, informing the new president Harry Truman that “Segregation becomes all the more important at a time when the United States should be assuming moral leadership in the world.” Only on July 26, 1948 did Truman’s Executive Order 9981 integrate the armed forces, promising equal treatment and opportunity. It took another four years and the Korean War before blacks were integrated into combat units. By 1960, the Marines were integrated. In 2008, one Montford graduate, Melvin Shoats, bitterly remembering the early insults but amazed by the swift subsequent progress, proclaimed: “The transition was so easy, you really couldn’t see it.”
History is not for wimps. The past is filled with violence, misery, bigotry. But it is also filled with redemptive ideals that created democracy’s marvelous self-correcting mechanisms: free speech, free thought, peaceful processes for change.
Stalinists sanitized the past because dictators demanding total allegiance fear complicated narratives. Liberal democrats don’t. We cultivate deeper historical understandings, expanding our stories to learn about Howard Perry and the heroes of Montford Point, who finally received the recognition they deserved in 2012, when the 368 surviving members of that brutal but stretching training process received the Congressional Gold Medal.
Aspiring censors at Princeton University and elsewhere should learn about this more expansive view of history and democracy. Don’t change the name of the Woodrow Wilson School because of his racist views. In fact, the more liberal students learn about Wilson the more likely they are to realize that conservatives might dislike honoring this progressive inventor of big government. Instead, weave a broader, dynamic narrative of a newly diverse, ever evolving Princeton – and America -- that cherishes the best of the past, understanding how, despite their faults, predecessors like President Wilson ultimately helped America empower trailblazers like Private Perry.
We need to learn more about Perry and other African-American trailblazers as the best response to the fight at Princeton and elsewhere about renaming institutions after dead racists. Isn’t it better to fill in the historical blanks than to try wiping out historical contradictions?