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History Of First African-American Marines Preserved By San Diego Students

Above: Corwin Harris, and his son Corwin, Jr. interview a current Navy nurse as part of Project Ujima's Montford Point Marines project at the Malcolm X Public Library, Nov. 15, 2013.

Evening Edition

— It isn’t often that kids in history class get to feel like they’re unearthing new information. But a few San Diego city schools students and their parents are working on a project to fill in gaps in the history books.

Aired 11/22/13 on KPBS News.

San Diego city schools students and their parents are working on a project to fill in gaps in the history books.

When 91-year-old Carrel Reavis was drafted in 1943, he didn’t think twice about showing up at Marine Corps boot camp.

“There was nothing to think about. You either go or you go to jail. So naturally, you’ll go,” he said.

As an African-American he didn’t report to Parris Island or San Diego, where the Corps’ other inductees trained. He reported to Montford Point, a facility near Camp Lejuene in coastal North Carolina.

“It was a dirty place," Reavis remembered. "It was a place that no one really wanted to be. But that was all we had and that was the place for Negros at the time. It was a lot of mud and a lot of snakes and a lot of other things that you didn’t want. Huts — we didn’t have barracks — we had huts.”

The segregated training camp had opened just one year earlier, after President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the military and defense industries to accept draftees and workers of all races. About 20,000 men trained at the camp between 1942 and 1949. Reavis is one of the handful who are still alive.

“Someone would ask you — even other Marines — would ask you where’d you gone through boot camp? And you’d say Montford Point and they’d call you a liar," said J.T. Inge, who joined the Marines and trained at the segregated camp in 1946. He retired from the Corps in 1969. “They’d say there was only two training facilities, Parris Island, South Carolina and San Diego, California.”

That obscurity is only just starting to lift —– the surviving Montford Point Marines were awarded Congressional Gold Medals, the country’s highest civilian honor, last year.

When Elneda Shannon learned that some of the men, including Reavis and Inge, lived in San Diego, she wanted to make sure more people heard their story.

“We said, we’ve got to do something with this, it’s just too important to let this go, we have to bring this to light,” said Shannon, director of San Diego Unified's Project Ujima

Project Ujima is a family engagement program focused primarily on the districts’ African-American families.

Some of those families are devoting this year to recording the stories of retired and active duty African-American Marines, including surviving Montford Pointers.

Corwin Harris and his son Corwin Jr. are one of three student-adult pairs who conducted the interviews at the Malcolm X Library on Market Street.

Harris Sr. said driving home from the interviews, he and his son talked a lot about “how a man can be subjected to the worst treatment ever and to live through it, y’know, come out strong, with your head up. It’s hard to describe because I wasn’t in that time. But I can imagine, I can imagine how it was.”

What stuck with Corwin Jr. were some of the more personal moments.

“They had a hard time leaving their homes before they left, because some of them thought that they weren’t going to see their family again,” he said.

Project Ujima is putting the interviews on DVD. They’ve also enlisted the Community Actors' Theatre to help the families write a play. It’s all being done with a $10,000 grant from Cal Humanities.

They're recording part of history that was nearly lost, according to William Woods, a member of the San Diego Chapter of the Montford Point Marine Association, a group dedicated to preserving the legacy of the men who trained at the camp.

“I was in the Marines and didn’t even realize that we had Marines who were black serving in the South Pacific," he said. "You stop and think about it — they kept it hidden pretty well. They kept it hidden from me and I was in the Marine Corps.”

Eleven-year-old A-Munique Mills interviewed some of the Marines with her mother. She thinks people who see the project could take away more than just a history lesson.

“They might think that ‘oh wow. I didn’t know that the Montford Point Marines did this and went through all this,'" she said."They might think 'Oh, I can do that. I can do anything I put my mind to.'”

Carrel Reavis is happy to see the students and their parents contributing to an even more basic legacy

“When I was a youngster, we didn’t have access to history of my great, great grandfather — we didn’t even know them and we had no way of finding out anything about what they looked like, what they died from or anything like that," he said. "Today, children can look back and say, that was my great grandfather, he looked like this or here’s a picture of him.”

The interviewers hope pictures of the Montford Point Marines aren’t only saved by their families, but in the pages of history books, too.

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