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'Now, we have Black generals': Montford Point Marine shares his experience with racial segregation

First Sgt. William "Jack" McDowell receives a Congressional Gold Medal for his service as a Montford Point Marine. (Courtesy of William "Jack" McDowell)
First Sgt. William "Jack" McDowell receives a Congressional Gold Medal for his service as a Montford Point Marine. (Courtesy of William "Jack" McDowell)

Only in 1942 were Black Americans first allowed to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps, making it the last branch of the armed forces to integrate. But the mere ability to join the Marines did not mean equality had been achieved. The first Black men to enlist were sent to their own segregated training camp: Montford Point in North Carolina.

What those first Black Marines experienced is not well known; Many left the service and didn’t talk about the experience to their families. Now, there’s a movement to honor the first Black Marines, and to find those who still might be with us, as many have passed away.

First Sgt. William “Jack” McDowell, retired from the Marine Corps, was in that first group of Black Americans to integrate the Marines. He served for 26 years, fought in three different wars and has been awarded three Purple Heart medals and a Congressional Gold Medal.

The 95-year-old says he’s seen a lot of progress over the years.

“We didn’t have any Black officers at the time, from [1942] to ‘49,” he says. “But now we have Black generals in the Marine Corps.”

McDowell says he joined in 1945, right out of high school in New York, when he was 17.

“My brother actually went in a year before me and came home and [told] me all kinds of stories and being a silly kid, I thought, ‘that’s for me,’” he says. “I decided to follow in his footsteps.”

He says his platoon camp was 99% Black, so he didn’t run into major problems with respect to race there.

But that changed outside the base because Black men in the South commonly had to use separate facilities like restrooms.

“That was quite a bit of a shock to me,” he says. “You didn’t socialize with people who were white … I thought it was silly. A waste of time and talent. We were in a world war at the time, and I just felt that it was very strange that at least people in uniform trying to serve the country … they were being discriminated against because of their skin – didn’t make any sense to me.”

By the time McDowell was 18, he says he had already been around the world, serving in efforts in places like Japan and Northern China before returning to North Carolina. It wasn’t until several years later, when the Korean War broke out, that he says he served with white men for the first time.

“Over the years, it took awhile for people to get used to an integrated Marine Corps,” he says. “But the rest of my time in the Marine Corps, another 20 years, it went rather well. There were incidents from time to time, as you can imagine, but overall I think the Marine Corps has done a pretty good job of integrating racially.”

Sonia Smith Kang discovered her grandfather, Corporal Arnold Anthony Smith, served as a Montford Point Marine. (Courtesy of Sonia Smith Kang)

Like McDowell, Sonia Smith-Kang’s grandfather, Cpl. Arnold Anthony Smith, was a Montford Point Marine.

But her own father didn’t even know about that service until he found Smith-Kang’s grandfather’s uniform hidden in the attic.

“It sounds like my grandfather was a very prideful man and he saw a lot,” she says. “He was there on the first day of fighting in Okinawa.”

Smith-Kang says her father began to explore that part of her grandfather’s life. And even though he has died, she says she was able to apply to get him a Congressional Gold Medal, like McDowell received, in recognition of his service all those years ago. She received it in November of last year.

“At the time, my grandfather and the other Montford Point Marines — they were trailblazers,” she says. “As much as we know about the Tuskegee Airmen and the Buffalo Soldiers, I really want to see the Montford Point Marines get that same level as part of American history…To come from … fighting during a war, when at home they’re also fighting racism during Jim Crow South. And I think it took a very special person to fight … for a country that didn’t see them as human at times.”

Smith-Kang wants other families to explore applying for a Congressional Gold Medal if they believe their relative was a Montford Point Marine.

McDowell says it’s been difficult to find other Marines is because some of the records of their service were destroyed in a fire decades ago. He figures that since 3,000 medals have already been awarded, that leaves about 17,000 Marines that could be eligible for one.

But much of that detective work will be left to families.

“We’re all in our 90s,” McDowell says. “There aren’t a lot left to tell the story.”

Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Locke adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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