By Vanessa Remmers
Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Richmond Free Press
(TriceEdneyWire.com) – Towanda C. Lee’s father left many stories untold. He was a man of few words, she said. And when she was a child, she simply ignored his old war tales.
It wasn’t until after he died in January 1991 that Ms. Lee discovered documents stowed in the basement that shed light on his hidden history.
Her father, Herman Russell Charity Sr., a lifelong Richmond resident, was among a pioneering group of African-American U.S. Marine Corps members known as the Montford Point Marines, and he was eligible to receive the highest civilian honor bestowed by Congress.
Last Sunday, Ms. Lee dissolved into tears when retired Master Sgt. Forest E. Spencer Jr., national president of the Montford Point Marine Association, arrived at her Mechanicsville home and cracked open a velvet blue box to reveal a Congressional Gold Medal being awarded posthumously to Mr. Charity.
Ms. Lee and her brother, Damon R. Charity, also were presented a certificate of recognition from the association, a nonprofit military veterans organization begun to memorialize the historic contributions of the first African-Americans to serve in the Marine Corps.
“He would have been so proud,” Ms. Lee whispered of her dad as she stared at the medal and wiped away tears.
She then looked up at the relatives, Marine Corps officials and reporters gathered in her living room.
“My father would have been so proud of this. He wouldn’t have said anything, but he would have been so proud,” Ms. Lee said.
“This is unbelievable. I just want to thank you all so much for … bestowing this honor on our father and making sure that everyone knows about the Montford Point Marines. Just like the Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines are right there with them.”
In November 2011, President Obama signed legislation directing the Congressional Gold Medal be given to all Montford Point Marines, a group of about 20,000 men who were trained between 1942 and 1949 at the segregated camp in Jacksonville, N.C.
In June 1941, under the threat of a major march in Washington by African-Americans protesting being shut out of war jobs with government agencies and contractors, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order banning such employment discrimination.
The presidential directive also enabled African-Americans to join the Marine Corps. But the Marine Corps segregated these newly enlisted Marines and sent them to basic training at a facility outside Camp Lejeune in North Carolina known as Camp Montford Point.
Traditionally, Marines were sent to boot camps at Parris Island, S.C. or in San Diego, Calif., association officials said.
These initial African-American Marines were assigned laborious duties to essentially build the new facility, transforming the land from thick pine forest with mosquitoes and snakes into Camp Montford Point, according to the association.
Less than a year after the first African-American recruits reported to Montford Point, Mr. Charity enlisted as a stated 18-year-old. But Ms. Lee and the family would later learn that Mr. Charity falsely made himself older on his enlistment documents so that he could become a Marine.
He was trained as an electronic stockman, but served as a munitions worker. He would later serve in the Asia Pacific from December 1943 to December 1945.
Ms. Lee’s family photos include one of a young Mr. Charity not long after he joined the Marine Corps in 1943. The family had it retouched in preparation for Sunday’s ceremony.
The original photo was signed to Ms. Lee’s mother, Edna Henry Charity, who her father affectionately called “Mutt.”
“Despite being denied many basic rights, the Montford Point Marines committed to serve our country with selfless patriotism,” President Obama wrote in a 2011 letter to all Montford Point Marines in celebration of their congressional recognition. “Choosing to put their lives on the line, these men helped advance civil rights and influenced President Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the Armed Forces in 1948.”
Since the legislation’s passage, the Montford Point Marine Association has recognized many of these Marines whose stories, association officials said, have largely been buried.
“It’s still alarming that Marines past and present, and most Americans today, are not aware of the Montford Point Marines and the importance of their service in the Marine Corps,” said Carmen Cole, a retired Marine chief warrant officer and president of the Quantico Chapter #32 of the Montford Point Marine Association, who participated in the ceremony.
“These great warriors … are who we consider barrier-breaking American heroes whose shoulders we stand on, because without them, African-Americans would not have had the opportunity to serve in the Marine Corps.”
Muster and payroll records indicate that some African-Americans served in the Marines as far back as the Revolutionary War, but weren’t followed by others of their race until June 1942, according to the Montford Point Marine Association.
Officials also noted that the Montford Point Marines were assigned to only two units, neither of which saw combat during World War II. Eventually, the segregated units were disbanded or integrated in with all-white units following President Truman’s order ending racial discrimination in the armed services.
However, many of the Montford Point Marines acknowledged their mixed feelings of pride and bitterness as they fought to defend a country that continued to deny basic rights to African-Americans.
Ms. Lee said she would give anything now to hear her father tell his story about being a Montford Point Marine. She said a chance conversation with a Marine at a family reunion led her to ask more about her father’s military history.
She said the Marine suggested that her father may have been a Montford Point Marine, something she and her siblings had never heard of, Ms. Lee said. She dug through documents in albums and others tucked away in her basement. They were sent off to Quantico, and officials confirmed her father’s status.
She agreed with Master Sgt. Spencer that she now has a duty to spread her father’s otherwise hidden story.
“This is not a February story; this is a 365-day story. This is American history,” Master Sgt. Spencer said. “The responsibility now is to share this with the community.”