U.S. Marines call themselves “the few, the proud.” The first black Marines could say the same thing. Last Friday, in an emotional ceremony, a Birmingham man who was a member of that select vanguard received a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal that Congress approved for the first black Marines in 2011.
U.S. Representative Terri Sewell presented the medal to Beverly Willingham at the Birmingham VA Medical Center, where the World War II era veteran is now a patient. Willingham, now 89, was a Montford Point Marine. As such, he was one of 20,000 black men who trained to be Marines at a segregated section of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, from 1942-1949, a site known as Montford Point. According to the Montford Point Marines website, training of black Marines began at the facility after President Franklin Roosevelt issued “a presidential directive giving African Americans an opportunity to be recruited into the Marine Corps.”
While undergoing rigorous training, the Montford Point Marines were subject to myriad forms of discrimination in the surrounding eastern North Carolina communities. According to some accounts, some Montford Pointers were arrested by suspicious local police who had never seen a black Marine before.
A majority of Montford Pointers served in World War II, and Montford Point was “deactivated” in 1949. A year earlier, President Harry Truman had issued an executive order ending segregation in the U.S. military.
According to Sewell’s office, Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines “for their bravery and unyielding commitment to serving this nation.” Sewell’s office also said the Montford Pointers’ “contributions to future generations are truly worthy of national recognition.”
VA Medical Center spokesman Jeff Hester called Friday’s award presentation to Willingham “very touching,” not only for the old Marine but also for those who attended. Those on hand included a Marine color guard, some of Willingham’s friends and relatives, and some of his caregivers.
“He welled up several times with tears,” Hester said, referring to Willingham. “We had a box of Kleenexes there for him and occasionally his niece or other family members would wipe the tears from his eyes and Congresswoman Sewell did. … She was definitely very attentive to him in recognizing this true honor.”
On June 27, 2012, the Montford Point veterans “received the gold medal collectively” in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. That original gold medal is at the U.S. Mint in Washington, and members of Congress have been presenting bronze replicas to Montford Pointers in their districts.