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Friday, February 8, 2013

The Journey to Boot Camp and "Passing"

Dad passed the physical exam and any other requirements needed to become a member of The United States Marine Corps. He wanted to join the military in the the combat division, which would be a first for Colored Soldiers at the time.The Marines were the last of the Armed Forces to allow Blacks to serve.

Clifford Primus boarded the bus in Springfield, MA with fellow recruits on the way to Marine Boot Camp, to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. The raucous, but friendly group were from all walks of life. All of these young recruits wanted to make a contribution to the World War II effort. On the bus ride to the boot camp the men introduced themselves, joked around and played bid whist.

                                                            How to Play Bid Whist

However, once the train arrived south of the Mason-Dixie Line in Washington, D.C. you can probably surmise what happened next. Clifford's Primus' name was called. He was informed that he had to exit the bus and board a train because of his race. Dad was the only Negro out of the group of Marine recruits. He was forced to sit in the colored section of the train near the engine which was operated with coal. There was no air conditioning in these days, so windows would remain open and travelers sitting nearby would be covered with soot. Dad arrived in Jacksonville, North Carolina, hungry. Negroes were not permitted to enter eating public establishments.

All of sudden a bus full of white Marine Recruits pulled up. These recruits had blond hair, blue eyes, and by all appearances were white. According to Dad, it was discovered that these recruits were "Passing". Passing is what some fair-skinned African Americans with keen, European features and straight hair did. (Some still do this even today.) Under the direction of the Secretary of The Navy*, William Franklin Knox, the backgrounds of Marine recruits were thoroughly investigated. It was discovered that these future soldiers fell under the "one drop of Black blood rule". Under the one Black blood rule, practiced since slavery, if someone has Black ancestry, they were considered Black.  So these soldiers attempting to "pass" were rounded up, and segregated with my father.

In American society, some people of color go to great lengths to "pass". This practice was adopted in order to have a better quality of life and avoid the pain of racism. It is not common to read about an celebrity who admits to having African American ancestry, but much later after an established career. "Passing" is a very controversial subject, much like skin bleaching and nose jobs. Generations of Jewish Americans, and other "Ethnic" groups change their names to more Anglican sounding names. Some Asians have surgery to make their eyes more Western in appearance.

A famous novella written by Nella Larsen during the Harlem Renaissance was called Passing. The main female character was "passing" and withheld the fact that she was Negro from her spouse. In the movies  Imitation of Life,** passing was explored.  The young female character looked extremely white in contrast to her dark skinned, thick-featured domestic mother. There are two versions of this movie and Imitation of Life is considered a classic.
Scene from 1959's Imitation of Life.

So far my father's Journey to Boot Camp proved to be an unforgettable one. What could possibly happen next?

    *The Marines is separate from the Navy, but both operate under the Department of the Navy.
** The movie Imitation of Life, was originally released in 1934 and then remade in 1954.

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