By Willie M. Calhoun, MSG,USAR, ret.
While attending a close relative’s funeral near Quitman, I walked upon a military headstone with the above inscription. Below Jason’s name and branch of military service were the words “World War II.” As a former Marine, Vietnam Veteran, and African American military retiree, I was amazed for two reasons.
Firstly, this headstone was representative of the Marine Corps’ 167 years of dark racial history-a history the Corps has recently acknowledged. This part of Marine Corps’ history was centered around an obscure location near Jacksonville, North Carolina known as Montfort Point. Camp Montfort Point was a separate and racial segregated (all African American) training facility (boot camp) begrudgingly operated by the Marine Corps from 1942 to 1949. Secondly and pointed, if the headstone proved authentic (and it did), I was standing near the gravesite of one of the 20,000 Marines trained at Camp Montford point. These Marines are called “America’s first black Marines” or” Montfort Pointers.” Myself and many other present and former African American Marines remain grateful to this group for inspiring the Corps to break it’s 167 year enlistment color barrier in 1942. Other Marine Corps color barriers regarding preferred assignments and duties would remain until 1960.
Jason Bolds (aka cousin Jason) was married to my dear Mother’s third cousin, Mrs. Oda Lee Rush Bolds. As children, we visited the Bolds family during our monthly grandparents’ visits. Both the Bolds and my grandparents lived in the Hill community near Sikes. Jason, like most other area residents, owned and operated a pulp wood truck and farmed family land. Later in life, he lived in the Shady Grove community just west of Natchitoches. He grew a community garden that supplied fresh produce to his neighbors.
Even though I remember seeing Jason many times during my childhood, I don’t remember having a conversation with him. In those days, children simply didn’t converse much with adults. I asked Jason’s sons if he ever mentioned the Marine Corps. Their response was typical of children of combat veterans. They said he didn’t talk much about his military service but he would occasionally mention a place called Iwo Jima. It’s noteworthy that at the time of the second iconic photographed flag raising on Mt. suribachi, Iwo Jima, Jason and other Black Marines were referred to as “Montford Pointers” or “Negro Marines.” Near the end of the Asiatic Pacific (”Island hopping”) Campaign, Marine Corps General Alexander Vandegrift, after observing the performance of an all black Marine Ammo Company, was quoted as saying “the Negro Marines are no longer on trial. They are Marines, period.” Detachments of an all black Marine Corps Shore Party were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for their performance on the Island of Peleliu in 1944. Also, in an official U. S. Navy press release in 1944, the Black Marines received a “Well Done” from the Marine Corps.
The racial history of the modern day Marine Corps can be traced to instructions given the Corps by the Secretary of the Navy in 1797. The newly reinstated Marines were instructed not to enlist negroes, mulattos, or Indians. Prior to it’s reinstatement, the Continental Marines along with the Army and Navy used all races. The Continental Marines are on record as having signed up about 12 or more African slaves to serve aboard it’s ships, though it’s not clear if all were enlisted or shanghaied. The racial enlistment instructions given to the Corps appear to have been in response to western hemisphere events of that era. One pivotal event that was difficult for African slave importing Governments to ignore was the Haitian Revolution (1791 – 1804). This revolution resulted in slaves imported from Africa gaining their independence from the French government. Though the actions of the African slaves on the Island is called a revolution today, it’s possible it was referred to as an insurrection in that era.
In 1807, the 9th U. S. Congress passed an Insurrection Act, authorizing the President to use the Armed Forces and National guard to put down Insurrections. In 1808 America banned importation of slaves from Africa. The ban only affected American held territories (Spanish held possessions were not included), That same year, Great Britain also banned the African slave trade. Military planners of that era also appeared to rethink their racial enlistment policies. After the War of 1812, African American slaves were used with caution. The marines continued to follow their original racial enlistment instructions given them in 1797. It’s notable that included in the Marine Corps many assigned missions was their original mission- to quickly quell or put down munities and insurrections on land or sea. Since most rebellions or revolts at that time were performed by African slaves or American Indians, the Marines felt it best not to include the same within their ranks. The Corps only recruited white Europeans, white Hispanics and a few Asians from 1797 to 1941.
In 1941, U. S. President Franklin D, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 forbidding discrimination in Armed Forces. The Army and Navy Generally agreed to comply but the Marine Corps refused and their refusal was adamant. The then Marine Corps Commandant, Major General Thomas Holcomb, said that the negro have no right to serve as Marines. To further solidify his position on accepting black Marines, he said “if it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites”. When pressured by the President and The secretary of the Navy (his immediate boss) to recruit blacks, the reluctant Commandant would only agree to “set up” a separate racially segregated (all black) training facility outside the then New Rivers Marine Corps Base ,North Carolina called Montford Point. At Camp Montford Point, black Marine recruits were housed in spare huts and were only allowed on the Main Base if escorted by a white Marine. All of their Identification papers were said to have been stamped “colored”. After World War II, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 desegregating Units in the Military. Camp Montford Point was closed in 1949 and black Marines were trained at Recruit Depots in Parris Island, North Carolina and San Diego, California.
On the official website of the United States Marine Corps dated 2 December 2011, the headlines reads: CONGRESSIONAL GOLD MEDAL APPROVED FOR MONTFORD POINT MARINES. In the press release the Marine Corps acknowledges its dark racial history. Paragraph 4 of the press release reads, ” The Congressional Gold Medal will honor all Montford Point Marines from a grateful Nation and Marine Corps”. Cousin Jason Bolds and Other Montfort Point Marines who have passed on were honored posthumously. During interviews with surviving Montfort Point Marines, I was humbled by hearing recurring themes of “their determination to make their race proud” and their steadfast determination to make the Montford Point “experiment “a success. One interviewee made a statement that further humbled me. He said that “what we were really fighting for was the right to fight”. Had they not had the right to fight During the Viet Nam War, 5 black enlisted Marines would not have received the Nation’s highest award for valor in combat- The Congressional Medal of Honor. All 5 received the award posthumously. Had it not been for the perseverance and courage of the Montford Point Marines, then Marine Corps Major General Ronald L. Baily(a black Marine) would not likely have become Commanding General of the 1st Marine Division headquartered at Camp Pendleton, California. As a testimony of the success of the Montford Point Marines inspiring social change in the military and in American society, I was allowed to volunteer for the Marine Corps at 17 and for Viet Nam duty at 18. As an 18 year old member of the last Marine Corps Combat (Grunt) unit to leave Viet Nam in 1971, I was unaware of the sacrifices of the Montfort Point Marines.
On 10 November 2020, the U. S. Marine Corps will celebrate its 245th birthday. While celebrating, all present and former Marines are reminded of the Marines who came before us. I hope Jason Bolds and other Montford Point Marines will remain in our memory. To the surviving Montford Pointers, I offer a sincere WELL DONE.
The views and opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the Natchitoches Parish Journal. If you have an article or story of interest for publishing consideration by the NPJ, please send it to NPJNatLa@gmail.com.