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A project launched in 2019 to restore key buildings used by early Black Marines – and protect structures from the effects of climate change – is almost complete.
During the 1940s, about 20,000 men trained in harsh conditions at a racially segregated base in North Carolina known as Montford Point. It is now part of Camp Lejeune — the main Marine Corps infantry base for the East Coast – and is named Camp Johnson after one of those early black Marines, Sgt. Major Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, a legendary drill instructor.
The men who made the buildings worth saving are almost gone. But a handful of the roughly 300 surviving Montford Point Marines returned in late April for the reopening of the freshly restored museum in their honor, in what was once their mess hall.
“It’s a good idea to keep in people’s minds what things were before and what they are now”
Retired first sergeant. William McDowell, who calls himself “Jack”, came from Long Beach, California. He said the restoration was important to the Marines and the nation.
“I’m not one to dwell on the past,” he said. “On the other hand, I think for historical and educational purposes, it’s a good idea to keep in people’s minds the way things were and the way they are now.”
“There was a time when the Marine Corps would have preferred the fact that it was racially segregated to be forgotten,” he said.
Montford Point Marine Association officials say the Corps treated them as a partner in the restoration project by working closely with them when planning key details such as buildings to be saved. The Navy and Marines also consulted with the North Carolina Historic Preservation Office on the nature of the restoration.
Dozens of Montford Point-era buildings had to be demolished after Hurricane Florence hit Camp Lejeune with high winds and three record-breaking days of rain in 2018.
Many old buildings in Montford Point were badly damaged and were too close to the lower New River, where flooding and storm surges are increasingly common.
“We view climate change as a preparedness issue,” says Navy Commander Ross Campbell, Camp Lejeune’s public works officer. “We need to look at sea level rise and make sure the structures we have at the water’s edge are ready to respond to events related to climate change.”
The restoration plan will save and renovate five important buildings, including a key headquarters, the museum and the gymnasium. The gymnasium is the last to be restored, and it is nearing completion. The army will also completely rebuild the chapel, which was too damaged to be saved.
The aim was to save these historic buildings and make them much less vulnerable to the effects of climate change
Campbell says the goal was to save buildings that are historically significant and useful to units using the base now, and to make them much less vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
“The ability to renovate these buildings was taken holistically, not just as an opportunity to bring it to the current mission set, but also to look at resilience across the spectrum,” he says. “Not just storm, climate change, but energy efficiency and building efficiency, and building health as it relates to indoor air quality.”
In practice, this means that the surviving buildings at Montford Point are shored up – their timber replaced with waterproof materials, their shingles replaced with wind-resistant metal roofs.
White, weather-resistant cement-based siding was chosen to resemble the original painted wood planks, and the metal roofs are stained as close to the original shingles as possible.
And the buildings’ heating and cooling systems have been significantly upgraded to use less energy and prevent wood mold and rot from the region’s infamous humidity.
Carroll Braxton, 97, a retired staff sergeant from Virginia, remembers that humidity vividly — and worse.
“It was a swamp right next to where we were,” Braxton says. “Drill instructors would take us right by this swamp and stand at attention. And he’d say, ‘You n-words, have you eaten? “
“‘Well, let them (expletive) mosquitoes eat now!’ “
Braxton says the bites were so bad that when he came home from leave, his mother thought he had smallpox.
“We were tenacious. As if we were not human”
The verbal and physical abuse directed at the men seemed endless, he said. Some recruits caught breaking smoking rules were forced to smoke with buckets over their heads and blankets over the buckets. He heard that a man had been forced to drink his own urine.
“See, we were tenacious,” Braxton says. “As if we weren’t human.”
The Marine Corps was the last service to allow black recruits and did not do so voluntarily. This happened only after an order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Melton McLaurin, professor emeritus of history at UNC-Wilmington, is the author of Montford Point Marinesan oral history.
He says the Commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, Major General Thomas Holcomb, made his feelings clear.
“He said if he had a choice between 250,000 Black Marines and 5,000 Whites, he would take the Whites,” McLaurin said. “They wanted nothing to do with African American Marines.”
Jack McDowell, the retired first sergeant, came to Montford Point from his native Brooklyn and had a lower tolerance for racism than some of his Southern counterparts. He says he was once arrested and imprisoned in nearby Jacksonville because he refused to yield the sidewalk to a white sailor.
But he remained with the Marines for more than 23 years, serving in three wars and earning three Purple Hearts. He says he would have stayed longer if he hadn’t lost a leg after being injured in Vietnam.
His time in service encompassed a long period of the Corps’ first struggle with race, and he has story after story that illuminates him.
“As quiet as it gets, on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, there were African American Marines there,” he said. “And, in Okinawa, there were a few thousand. But if you’ve seen photos or film reels or newsreels or films they’ve made about it, you’ve never seen black people.”
He rejoices in a piece of this forgotten history.
“I could tell when they ran out of blood and asked people to donate blood, a lot of white people run with African American blood,” he says.
During the Korean War, he became one of several dozen Black Marines sent to desegregate white units.
“I ended up being responsible for 28 white people,” he says. “It’s 1950, and most of them didn’t even know black people were in the Marine Corps. And all of a sudden, here’s one and he’s my boss.”
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Some Montford Point Marines remain bitter about their time there
The first few weeks didn’t go well.
“The sergeant I relieved was pretty belligerent,” McDowell says. “He kept using the N-word, so we had to come two or three times to the junction of the joints. More broken lips and black eyes. We fought, and the Koreans thought we were crazy .”
Months later, McDowell was injured. And that same sergeant ran to help carry him to safety.
“And complaining all the way, you know, using the N-word,” he says.
Later however, after the war, the sergeant asked to work with McDowell, and they became close enough that McDowell later attended the man’s funeral.
He says some Montford Point Marines remain bitter about their time there. But he says race relations in the military improved dramatically and he and many other early Black Marines enjoyed better lives in part because they came through Montford Point.
“It helped me in so many ways,” McDowell says. “It gave me the ambition to go to school and get a degree…the combination of that, plus schooling, I found I wasn’t afraid to make decisions.”
At 94, McDowell says he knows this could be his last visit to his old training camp. And he fears that after all the Marines at Montford Point are gone, their importance will also be lost.
“As time goes by, I think this whole Montford Point thing is getting blurry,” he says. “You know, this whole thing will kind of fall into oblivion.”
But some of the buildings they used will serve as a reminder. Now better shielded against weather and storms.