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Friday, May 31, 2013

At the Airport

 I cannot forget the intelligent man I met at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport last year. We were returning from the Montford Point Marine Congressional Medal of Award Ceremony. He stated that he was a professor at a college in Iowa. We had a discussion and he was quite emotional after witnessing the delegation of elderly veterans. The professor was fighting back tears because his father had just died, and he said his Dad was a Marine during World War II. His dad had always stressed boot camp training at Camp LeJeune and never mentioned the name of Montford Point. With further discussion and our help, he discovered that his father was probably a Montford Point Marine as well, since his father was African American. Like me, he probably heard stories growing up, and stored them away. We then parted, and ended with, "If your father was a Montford Point Marine, perhaps he could receive recognition posthumously." The handsome professor reflected a bit and then boarded his plane deep in thought.

Futhermore, I have to emphasize that the professor's story was what he shared with us, complete strangers. The only way for him to verify his father's military status was through archives, which are available on various sites such as An individual cannot falsely claim to be a member of the armed services and/or misrepresent their rank, or acts of herorism.

I had taken his business card to remain in contact, but unfortunately lost my wallet. (Long story that I don't want to get into at this juncture). I am quite sure the professor did some research and probably uncovered  information on Montford Point Marines in tribute to his late father.

 Because of the tragic events of September 11th, airport security has been significantly redefined. TSA (Transportation Security Administration) Agents are the first in line in insuring the safety of American aviation travel, and are mandated to take threats to safety very seriously. Over five thousand lives were lost in the largest attack on American soil since World War II. (The first being Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941). Passengers are patted down, and screening checkpoints sometimes have long lines as passengers empty their pockets, and instructed to remove shoes. Carry on luggage is x-rayed. Recently, my hair that was pulled up in a bun `was checked for foreign objects as if I was a character in a Blaxploitation* flick...yet no other females in my vicinity had their hair examined.


 The delegation of older, and noticeably disabled African-American men, who just received the nation's highest honor, were treated, well, less than honorable. Some of the men walked with canes, and a few like my dad were in wheelchairs. I narrowed my eyes at one TSA agent in particular. She angrily addressed the elderly honorees, who still had their medals around their necks (complete with red, white and blue ribbons) and their best suits, as if they were common street thugs. I watched with horror as the same coarse woman barked at the men. Luckily, a respectful and knowledgeable supervisor and another official came by and oversaw the checkpoint procedures, restoring dignity to the procession. As for the TSA checkpoint agent, she was whisked away before an incident took place. Her attitude definitely needed to be "checked".

We met an airline attendant who was a history major at Howard University and never heard of the Montford Point Marines. She gathered some information from us and vowed to do so research. It is an on-going educational process. Throughout the airport people were stopping and asking questions upon spotting my dad's medal. Many people of various ages, all walks of life, stopped and shook dad's hand, and thanked my father for his service to the country. Others shared stories of their own son, father, or grandfather in the military and were generally upbeat. On our plane back home to Bradley International Airport, Hartford/Springfield, the flight attendants made a special announcement for my dad and we were given preferential seating. Fellow passengers cheered and congratulated my dad, who was grinning ear to ear.

Almost a year later and Dad never leaves his house without a Montford Point Marine Hat or USMC Hat, attracting comments and words of encouragement, with some "special" treatment or expedited service thrown in for good measure.

Further Information:
.remembering 9/11

*Blaxploitation: a genre of American film of the 1970s featuring African American actors in lead roles and often having antiestablishment plots, frequently criticized for stereotypical characterization and glorification of violence. Blend of Black + Exploitation ( From Examples include: Shaft, Foxxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones. Quintessential actress Pam Grier hid weapons in her hair in two of the genre's films.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Golden Fourteen: Black Female Navy Members in WWI

Did you know that in World War I the United States had uniformed Black Females in the armed forces? Neither did I. The United States Navy had the distinction of having fourteen uniformed African American female Yeoman. Navy Yeomen serve as office managers and perform other various clerical and administrative duties. (  Kelly Miller, Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Howard University in Washington, D.C., wrote a seminal book in 1919 entitled,  The History of The World War for Human Rights.

The Golden Fourteen worked under the tutelage of John T. Risher during World War One. Risher was a Civil Servant in D.C. in the Navy Department. Risher's job was to keep an accurate account and track of deployed kinsman in the branch of the armed forces. This was critical because of the increased number of servicemen during war time.

According to Joseph Risher:

The women were all cool, clear-headed and well-poised, evincing at all times in the language of a white chief yeoman: a tidiness and appropriate demeanor both on and off duty which the girls of the white race might do well to emulate.

Golden Fourteen pictured in photo A.
 Source: This site has further information on the subjects of photo B.

Regretfully,  The Golden Fourteen received scant recognition during their lifetime. They consisted of:

  1.  Armelda H. Greene of MS
  2.  Pocahontas A. Jackson of MS
  3.  Catherine E. Finch of MS
  4.  Fannie A. Foote of TX
  5.  Ruth A. Wellborn of DC
  6.  Olga F. Jones of DC
  7.  Sarah Davis of MD
  8.  Sarah E. Howard of MS
  9.  Marie E. Mitchell of DC
  10.  Annie G. Smallwood of DC
  11.  Maude C. Williams of TX
  12.  Caroll E Washington of MS
  13.  Joseph (sic) B Washington of MS
  14.  Inez B. McIntosh of MS

Listed above is the grandmother of the late Commerce Secretary of  Ronald H. Brown*, Ruth Wellborn, who is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Some sources listed a higher number of Negro Yeoman. In the article entitled " Milestones of Women in the US Navy"" the number listed is 24 African American Women. However, the names of the enlisted females are omitted. From this site:

It was also noted that the work of this section has proven highly efficient and satisfactory, as the plans in vogue there under its modern management are both scientific and accurate. Many of the superior officials have scrutinized the experiment very closely and are a unit in the sincerity of their admiration of its success and effectiveness. Source:

In other words, The Golden Fourteen were a well oiled machine!

*Ron Brown served as Commerce Secretary during the Clinton Administration and was an Army Officer, chief lobbyist for the National Urban League, law partner at a prestigious firm and elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee before his tragic plane crash in 1996. For further reading see, Holmes, Steven. Ron Brown: An Uncommon Life: New York,  John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

World War I Galvanizes African American Women

African American women did not sit at home absentmindedly twiddling their thumbs during World War I. As a matter of fact, Black women were galvanized into becoming social activists, community organizers, and laborers. They held rallies throughout the country to support " their" troops emotionally.  During the years of the WWI, women advocated for greater pay and better working conditions. They participated in the Anti-Lynching movement and the Suffrage Movement. Finally, African American women were able to expand their employment opportunities.

Lynching was a system primarily based in the South to instill fear in enslaved Blacks, and then Blacks after Emancipation. If a Black man was considered "uppity" or getting out of hand, he could be "lynched", which was a public hanging. It was a "must see" for evil and racist spectators, and many would brag about going to one as if it was an entertainment event. Children were brought to lynchings and individuals were reported "smiling and waving at the camera."  Trumped up charges, minor infractions, retribution, punishment, etc. were all used to spread fear and keep African Americans in place. On some occasions, even pregnant females were lynched. These atrocities continued for centuries. The role of the Negro Press was instrumental in shedding light on this disturbing practice. Black leaders and clergy men dedicated a significant portion of their lives in ending this inhumane practice.

Related to lynching were brutal attacks and assaults on African Americans. The turning point for the Civil Rights Movement was Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy who was assaulted, eyes gouged out, and shot in the back of the head for reportedly flirting with a white married woman. His body was dumped into a river and his assailants were acquitted and released. Emitt Till was a young boy visiting relatives in Mississippi  from Chicago, IL. His body was returned to Chicago where newspaper photographs of his open casket funeral shocked and outraged the nation. Till's case was in 1958, and forced America to examine its disturbing history of racial violence. An entertainer made the callous mistake of insensitively referencing Emitt Till in a song lyric recently, which resulted in negative publicity and a major endorsement deal loss. (Source:

Blues singer Billie "Lady Day" Holiday's (1915-1959) famous song  about lynching is called "Strange Fruit".
Writers: Abel Meeropol and Laura Duncan

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

This song was recorded by Holiday in 1939. "Strange Fruit" is believed to be the first anti-racism song and later inducted inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978.   Source:                                                           

It is hard to believe that half of the United States population did not have the right to vote. Females were considered intellectually inferior, overly emotional, and not capable of making political decisions. Women were viewed as second class citizens and property. They were not granted the right to vote until August 26, 1920. The 19th Amendment of the US Constitution allowed women the right to vote. It was a battle that took over 100 years, since the first Women's Right's Convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848.* (The 15th Amendment supposedly guaranteed the right for Black men to vote; but illegal, flagrant, violations led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Black women willingly participated in the Suffrage Movement.

Employment Opportunities
From the book, "Women, War, and Work: The Impact of Women Workers in the United States, by Maurine Weiner Greenwald, Interview by Helen Ross, 1918, Sante Fe Railroad:

What occupation is open to us where we can make really good wages? We are employed as clerks, we cannot see any use in working our parents to death to get educated. Of course we should like easier work than this if it were opened to us, but this pays well and is no harder than other work open to us with three dollars a day, we can buy bonds, we can dress decently and not be tempted to find our living on the streets. (From historymatters.gmued/d/5331)

Some of the positions that African American women became employed in as a result of WWI included laborers, and railroad workers. This consisted of cleaning railroad cars, wiping engines, and tending railroad beds.These  positions were a far cry from standard domestic work and enabled women to expand their working possibilities. Eighty Percent of African American Women were employed as domestics in the United States. After 1915, they were now receiving training to become clerical workers.**  Women advocated for better wages, and seamstresses went on strike.


Also, in 1917, the co-founder of the Red Cross urged Black nurses to join the American Red Cross. They were not accepted until two months before the war ended in November 1918. These women served by making bandages and working in hospitals. The women also wrote letters home for illiterate soldiers, read mail sent to them, and worked in troop centers. (Source:

My dad, a Montford Point Marine who served with the 51st Battalion, had a negative experience with white Red Cross workers which I will describe in the future. In fact, in reading newspaper articles from other members of Montford Point, they cited the same incidents, a memory that lasted for most of their lifetimes. I think of all of the injustices these World War II soldiers suffered, this ranks among the top five.

Anti Lynching Advocate/Journalist/Educator Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) worked for the National Equal Rights Organization and requested President Woodrow Wilson to put an end to discrimination in hiring jobs for the US government. Ida B. Wells established an African American kindergarten. She was a newspaper editor and journalist. Wells was a  fearless crusader against inequality despite threats against her life.


Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was inspired by soldiers returning from World War I into becoming a pilot. In 1918 this was primarily a domain for privileged, wealthy white men. Her brother's disparaging remarks motivated Coleman into pursuing a pilot's license. Determined, Bessie Coleman took her savings and enrolled in flight school in France, since she was repeatedly denied admittance into flight school in the United States due to her race. Coleman thrilled thousands of spectators over the years with her exciting air shows and received acclaim for her bold accomplishments. The first Black female aviator died tragically in an air show accident in Jacksonville, Florida. Coleman's favorite role model, Ida B.Wells, presided over her funeral. Both of theses trailblazers were honored many decades later with United States Postal stamps. (www.pbsorg/wgbh/amexflygirls/peopleevents/paradeamex02.html)


The Great War, then, was certainly an impetus for African American to join the work force, to fight for equal rights, to organize and flex their political, social and economic muscles. Women such as Journalist/Equal Rights Advocate Ida B. Wells, and organizations such as the Red Cross, The YWCA and various auxiliary groups broke barriers for the rights of all. Their collective voices led to sweeping reforms that changed policy and created legislation. And in the case of aviatrix Bessie Coleman, World War I introduced endless possibilities....

** source: exhibitions,

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

WWI Army Organizational Chart and Fighting Abroad

I compiled a listing for readers to have a better framework in understanding exactly how soldiers were organized in World War I. These terms are used extensively in describing military units.

Army Organizational Chart, World War I
Squad/Section: 9 to 10 soldiers
Platoon: 16 to 44 soldiers
Company/Battery /Troop: 62 to 190 soldiers
Battalion/Squadron: 300-1,000 soldiers
Brigade/Regiment/Group: 3,000-5,000 Soldiers
Division: 10,000-15,000 soldiers
Corps: 20,000-45,000 soldiers
Army: 50,000+ Soldiers

Source: DA Pamphlet 10-1

                                          Excerpt From "For The Love of Liberty" Documentary

Despite the countless heroic efforts displayed by African American soldiers in defeating the Central Powers, a pernicious campaign was launched to discredit them. This animosity was one of the many reasons that prevented Blacks in participating in combat units. It was not until World War II (1941-1945) that Blacks were given the opportunity to prove themselves. Hence, "For the Love of Liberty" is an appropriate title for the documentary on African Americans in the military. My father Clifford Primus would later make history as a member of the 51st Battalion, as a Montford Point Marine.

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