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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Dad Becomes A Rifle Expert

Clifford Primus was now in Camp LeJeune as a US Marine Recruit. He had enlisted in Springfield, MA on April of 1943. He would have been exempt from the military as a defense factory worker, but he insisted on signing up after learning that the US Marines were finally allowing Negroes to join their branch of the Armed Forces and also authorized them to participate in combat.

My father stated that he had an Uncle Howard that served in World War I (1914-1917). My Great Uncle Howard was stationed in France while in the Army and supplied ammunition. In France, the African-American Soldiers had freedom from United States racism; the soldiers enjoyed themselves at dance clubs. The French did not have a history of deeply entrenched institutionalized racism as the United States. Consequently, the French welcomed the African American soldiers in their country without a problem. It was the white American Soldiers while abroad that had a problem with the Negro soldiers.  According to Dad's recent recollection of his uncle's story, fights broke out among both races of American soldiers.

Negro WWI Soldier

For World War II (1941-1945) the separation of the races still existed. The bus to Camp LeJeune lead to a separate training facility at Camp LeJeune called MONTFORD POINT. It is located in Jacksonville, North Carolina. If you served in the US Marines in the 1940s and were Negro, you trained at Montford Point. Montford Point Marines fought in World War II and the Korean War (1950-1953). Over twenty thousand African American men underwent training at this grueling boot camp.

Montford Point Marines Receiving Training.

For my Dad, training consisted of early morning excercise drills*. This morning he shared how he was assigned to the Anti-Aircraft Division in the 51st Battalion. As luck would have it a white Marine Sargent on the rifle range took a liking to my dad and by mere happenstance hailed from-- Springfield, MA. This guy spent extra time with my dad and showed him pointers on firing a M-1 Rifle. The M-1 rifle would automatically rise after firing, but paying extra attention to the weapon makes for mastery of the rifle. Because of this kind man from Springfield, MA, Dad had the highest score within his group and was awarded a rifle badge. On his discharge papers it lists that he was a Rifle Expert.

The Sargent that took a liking to my dad reminded me of  Pee Wee Reese of the Jackie Robinson story. In my previous post I wrote about how Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. Robinson underwent the most inhumane treatment with constant racists taunts and death threats. Players on his own team the Brooklyn Dodgers, resented him being a member. (Maybe not so much after Robinson helped them win the World Series.) Pee Wee Reese was the teammate and Captain of Dodgers that stood by Jackie Robinson and was his advocate. In life, when one is faced with challenging circumstances involving life or death situations, an ally is needed. So, this Springfield, MA native and white Sargent on the rifle range was greatly appreciated.
Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese

In my upcoming posts you will see how other Marines and civilians treated Montford Point Marines, America's First African-American Marines.

*Part of dad's bootcamp was swimming with a heavy backpack. Despite being from Florida he is not much of a swimmer but managed to swim across the water for a distance. He recalled a Montford Point Marine from Detroit who effortlessly swam. "Old boy from Detroit swam across with one arm...", he marveled. Some of my father's most colorful stories involved men from Chicago and Detroit.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dad's Brother: "Uncle Ted, "Coach"

In my last post I described how my father, Clifford Primus, began his unforgettable odyssey to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina for Marine Boot Camp training. In a nutshell:  "Jim Crow" travel and then forced segregation with Marine Recruits that were busted for "Passing" (See Previous Post).  Dad stated that he got along well with these individuals that were "passing".  Whether Post World War II if these Marines classified themselves in American society as white, mixed, Negro, mulatto*, I do not know.

My father had a younger brother, Uncle Ted, that was was drafted into the Army during World War II. He was exempt from the military due to a high school football leg injury. My Uncle Ted's complete name was Theodore Roosevelt Primus and he ended up attending Florida Agricultural & Mechanical College (Now known as FAMU) in Tallahassee, Florida. Many Primus family members attended this prestigious Historically Black College known for its academic reputation and of course, its famous Marching 100 Band.

Well, being named after a no nonsense US President who was famous for his quote, "Speak Softly But Carry A Big Stick",** was the perfect name for my uncle, as Uncle Ted did big things. He taught science, physical education, and special education in Broward County Florida, impacting many young adults lives. He also was a successful high school football coach. Source: Sun Sentinel Times, Dec. 28, 1988.

Uncle Ro, as my Dad called him, ( to my young ears at age eight it sounded like "Uncle Roll"), made history when his high school team, the Dillard Panthers,  played against a white high school team. It was a major event because varsity football was segregated. Major League Baseball, as many of you know, was segregated until Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. The famous intervarsity football match with my Uncle's team was in 1967.


American Football, and I must make the distinction because I have international readers, is serious business in the state of Florida. Its warm climate makes practice year round conducive and children prepare for excelling at the sport at a very young age. Football is also a major part of Florida culture;  homecomings and games are exciting events. The battle of the bands at predominately African Americans high schools/ colleges display intricate showmanship in terms of R&B - hiphop music and band formation. For a prime example of this watch the 2002 movie "Drumline", featuring actors Zoe Saldana, Orlando Jones, and starring Nick Cannon. I included an excerpt of the movie to illustrate.

                                                   Final Battle of the Bands Scene, "Drumline"

Six of Uncle Ted's players from his athletic teams went on play professional football with the National Football League. Ted Primus was well known in South Florida and at his funeral in 1988 a host of dignitaries and multitudes of mourners were in attendance. Uncle Ted "adopted" many troubled young students and encouraged them to remain in school. Coach emphasized education over athletics. His legacy remains.

*Mulatto- Term used to describe a bi-racial, multi-racial, mixed individual. Outdated, and considered offensive because it is derived from the Spanish word for mule. However, some claim the origins of the word are Arabic for muwallad, mixed ancestery.  Sources:,, a comprehensive source for multiracial people.

** Former President Theodore Roosevelt attributed this quote to a West African Proverb, Source:

*** Uncle Ted  had a trucking business that transported oranges from Florida to New York, eliminating the middle man. He also was involved in real estate, furthering dispelling the "dumb jock myth".

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.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Miss Bethune": Dad Was Her Paperboy

Dr. Mary MeLeod Bethune was a formidable woman. She was part of former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's " Black Cabinet". The cabinet advised FDR on matters of race relations and advancement. Dr. Bethune established a school for African American girls that evolved into Bethune-Cookman College in 1904, in Daytona Beach, Florida. She was also good friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who would visit the campus during the 1930's. The town would be buzzing about her arrival. "Miss Bethune" is how my dad always refers to this extraordinary woman, and he unconsciously adapts a respectful tone to his voice. As a matter of fact, I don't recall anyone ever speaking badly of "Miss Bethune". Ever. She "held things down" in the early part of the previous century, kind of like a Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, plus elements of Oprah Winfrey and Rosa Parks, all rolled into one.

"Mary McLeod Bethune"

When Miss Bethune spoke, people listened. It was her close relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt (first syllable in last name pronounced by people in my father's generation with the long "u" vowel sound) that suggested that Negros were capable of serving in the military in combat positions. Eleanor Roosevelt was First Lady for sixteen years, and she was very influential in promoting civil rights and various humanitarian causes.

 The Primus family lived very close to Bethune-Cookman's campus. They lived so close to Miss Bethune that she used to call out to my dad's younger sister, who was on her way to school, "What are your goals for today?" It left such an indelible impression on my aunt. Successful and productive people always set goals and benchmarks. My aunt went on to have an illustrious career in nursing and has mentored countless individuals in her field. She earned a Doctorate in Nursing, taught at many colleges and has done consulting work in South Africa on H.I.V./ A.I.D.S. Certainly, my aunt listened to Miss Bethune about having goals.

Former  First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

Dad was "Miss Bethune's" paperboy. Today's term is newspaper courier, because the job can be done by either male or female. If you were a paperboy during the 1930s, you had a highly coveted job. People in your neighborhood relied on you to deliver their newspaper bright and early. Dad did not have to brave rain or snow, since Daytona Beach is located in the "Sunshine State". The newspaper was a primary source of information next to the radio.

Source:  Flickr/Discover Black Heritage
Paperboy, 1920's

The radio informed and entertained its audience. If a family could afford it, the radio was a source of entertainment where families gathered around it to listen to news broadcasts, sporting events, comedy and drama. Did you know the term soap opera or soaps, was derived from the advertisers that paid for advertising during serial shows? Companies like Proctor and Gamble would advertise their products during scheduled show times, because they knew that is when people would be listening. This practice is still used today, but in other mediums as well. An advertiser will pay millions to have their product promoted during the Superbowl because millions will see it and talk about it.

 The Primus family was fortunate to be able to afford  a radio, and neighbors crowded around it to listen to the first Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling heavyweight boxing fight. That was a major sport event, much like Muhammad Ali's "Thriller In Manila" and "Rumble In the Jungle" or the aforementioned Superbowl. Additionally, Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the radio frequently to reassure the nation during his long, challenging administration.


Back to "Miss Bethune".  Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune went on to create the National Council of Negro Women. She was a trailblazer, and was a pivotal person in the lives of not only The Primus Family, but for the nation overall. It was Miss Bethune that believed that Blacks could serve well in combat.Consequently, my father as a teenager was able to serve as a Montford Point Marine, specifically in a history making battalion. But Dad's early brush with greatness as a child was being Miss Bethune's paperboy!

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