Four area men struggled to join the Marine Corps during World War II, desiring to serve their country in a position other than cleaning and cooking at a time when African-Americans were called “colored.” But in the end, the men were able to serve with dignity.
A 1941 executive order allowed African-Americans to enlist in the Marine Corps, and a segregated facility was created for the Montford Point Marines in North Carolina. Within the first two years, from 1942 to 1944, Bill French, Ed Brady, Melvin Scott and Thomas Lane IV all enlisted.
“I’d do it all over again,” said Brady, 90, of Vineland. He joined French, 92, and Scott in speaking to an audience of about 50 employees Wednesday morning at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township.
The three men shared their experiences of attempting to enlist but being told “No colored allowed.”
Scott, 85, said he recalls living in Washington, D.C., and watching through the gates of the Marine barracks as the flag was raised or lowered.
“I was colored. In those days, you could look, but you couldn’t belong,” he said.
They spoke of how enthusiastic they were to finally join the Marines, and how each had to make several attempts to get in. Despite the executive order, they were still being told that African-Americans weren’t allowed.
“The white officers were rough and tough, because they didn’t want us there to begin with,” French said. But he, too, said he would do it all over again.
“Basically all the education you got, you got it at Montford,” he said.
Humphrey Russell, of Mays Landing, told the men that “there is something to be said about your attitudes. You don’t have any (mental) scars.” He thanked them for “paving the way.”
Which they continued to do after leaving the facility at Camp Lejeune.
Two of the four Marines became involved in school districts in Cumberland County. Lane, 87, who could not attend, was the first black superintendent of the Bridgeton School District in 1997, and currently serves on the school board in Fairfield Township. Scott spent 41 years in the Vineland school system, and was the first male African American teacher.
The jovial and neutral nature of the three men surprised some in the audience, who murmured about the lack of animosity about the struggles they had faced.
“I wish they had shared more of their experiences in the camp,” said Benjamin DeGraffinried, of Washington Township, adding that he wished the youth in the region had a chance to hear the men so that it might positively affect their attitudes and mentality.
Today’s youth “don’t have it as tough,” said Andrew Stewart, of Washington Township. He agreed those who engage in crime and violence tend to make life harder on themselves.
“This serves as a constant reminder,” Stewart said of the presentation. “It makes me feel stronger.”
DeGraffinried agreed, adding that when he was a student, the focus was on the civil rights movement and Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr. He said there are so many untold stories, such as those of the Montford Point Marines, that his generation and today’s youth can benefit from hearing.
He said that the stories serve as a reminder of the struggles and sacrifice.
“You don’t want to bring back the anger, just the awareness,” DeGraffinried said.
Janet Kinsell, of Mays Landing, said, “I thank you … for fighting so that I can enjoy my freedom today.”
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