SACRAMENTO, Calif. — There was a time in our history when African Americans were drafted but not allowed into the U.S. Marine Corps. That changed just five months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order to prohibit ethnic or racial discrimination in the nation's defense industry. In 1942, the first group of African Americans were drafted into the Marine Corps basic training program, but they were not equal. The group was sent to a segregated training camp called Montford Point.
One of the men drafted into that segregated group was Marine Corps Veteran Rick Davis. He was fresh out of high school when he received his draft orders.
"The man that gave me my orders said, 'You are going to Montford Point.' I said, 'Where is that?' He said, 'You will find out soon enough,'" Davis recalled.
The new draftee did find out. Montford Point is located in North Carolina and in 1943, that part of the state was racially segregated.
Before the Marines, Davis experienced very little racism. He grew up in Compton, California, but at a time when Compton was a much different place than it's known as today.
"It was mostly a white community," said Davis, who quickly learned that things were different in the South. "I saw on the wall, 'WHITE, COLORED.' I thought, 'Well I want to see what this colored water tastes like.'"
From 1942 to 1949, roughly 20,000 blacks enlisted in the Marines. They may have been segregated, but they received the same training as all Marines before them.
After basic training, Rick was sent to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He didn't see much action, but subtle forms of racism followed him.
"The people had a different idea of what blacks were. They thought we had tails or something. Like monkeys," said Davis.
The Montford Point Marines worked to change those ideas through sports. Rick and other squad members were on the U.S. Marine football team where they worked to break down stereotypes by simply playing football with the locals.
"I am a better man today, because I had to learn to survive. The Marine Corps gave me that discipline," Davis said.
That discipline ultimately helped Rick when he left the Marines. His first civilian job was as a school counselor, then, in 1975, he became an attendance consultant for the Sacramento County School District, where he used military training to helped shape the lives of young people.
In 2012, Congress awarded the congressional gold medal to the Montford Point Marines as a thank you for taking the first steps into making the Marines Corps what it is today. The award got Rick thinking about his time in the service and what he learned.
"I got a whole new appreciation for the Marine Corps. They helped me survive this society," says Davis.
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