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America's first Black Marine base is threatened by the effects of climate change

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

During the 1940s, about 20,000 men trained on a racially segregated Marine base known as Montford Point. It's now part of Camp Lejeune. A project, though, is nearly complete to restore key buildings used by the first Black Marines. WUNC's Jay Price reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: The men who made the buildings worth saving are nearly gone, but a handful of the 300 or so surviving Montford Point Marines came back for the reopening of the freshly restored museum honoring them in what was once their mess hall. Retired First Sergeant William McDowell, who goes by Jack, flew in from Long Beach, Calif. He said the restoration is important to the Marines and the nation.

WILLIAM MCDOWELL: I'm not one to dwell on the past. On the other hand, I think it's a good idea to keep in the minds of folks the way things used to be. There was a time when the Marine Corps would have rather the fact that it was racially segregated was forgotten about.

PRICE: Not anymore. Montford Point Marine Association officials said the Corps treated them like a partner in the restoration project. Dozens of buildings from the Montford Point era had to be demolished after Hurricane Florence pounded Camp Lejeune with three days of wind and rain in 2018. Many were badly damaged and sat too close to the Lower New River, where flooding and storm surges are getting increasingly common. Navy Commander Ross Campbell is Camp Lejeune's public works officer.

ROSS CAMPBELL: So these older structures, not only were they not really meeting the needs of the training mission out here, but they also represented significant risk as far as sea level rise. And so it was a good thing to be able to pull that back from the water's edge.

PRICE: That means the surviving Montford Point buildings are being shored up - their wood replaced with waterproof materials, their shingles replaced with wind-resistant metal roofs, and their heating and cooling systems upgraded to prevent mold and wood rot from the area's infamous humidity. Ninety-seven-year-old Carol Braxton, a retired master gunnery sergeant from Virginia, vividly remembers that humidity and worse.

CAROL BRAXTON: It was a swamp right near where we was. In the evening, just about dusk dark, the drill instructor would take us right by that swamp and make us stand at attention. And he would say, you N-words, did you eat? Yes, sir. Well, let the [expletive] mosquitoes

PRICE: Braxton said the bites were so bad, when he went home on furlough his mother thought he had smallpox. And the verbal and physical abuse directed at the men seemed endless. Recruits were forced to smoke with buckets on their heads and blankets over the buckets. He heard one man was forced to drink his own urine.

BRAXTON: See, we were dogged, as if we weren't human.

PRICE: The Marine Corps was the last service to allow Black recruits and didn't do it willingly. That took an order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Melton McLaurin, an emeritus professor of history at UNC-Wilmington, is the author of "The Marines Of Montford Point." He said the commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, Major General Thomas Holcomb, made his feelings clear.

MELTON MCLAURIN: He said if he had a choice between 250,000 Black Marines and 5,000 whites, he'd take the whites. I think that pretty much summed it up (laughter). They didn't want anything to do with African American Marines.

PRICE: Jack McDowell, the retired first sergeant, came to Montford Point from his native Brooklyn and had a lower tolerance for racism than some of his Southern counterparts. But he stuck with the Marines for more than 23 years, serving in three wars and earning three Purple Hearts. It was a long stretch of the Corp's early struggle to deal with race.

MCDOWELL: As quiet as it's kept, on the islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, there were African American Marines there, and in Okinawa, there were a couple thousand. But if you saw any photos or movie reels or newsreels or any movie that they made about it, you never saw any Black guys.

PRICE: He's gleeful about one piece of forgotten history.

MCDOWELL: Also, when they ran out of blood and they asked for people to donate blood, a whole lot of white guys running around with African American blood in them (laughter).

PRICE: During the Korean War, he became one of the first Black Marines sent out to desegregate white units.

MCDOWELL: I ended up being in charge of 28 white guys. I was the only Black guy in the outfit. It's 1950, and most of them didn't even know Black guys were in the Marine Corps. And all of a sudden, here's one, and he's my boss.

PRICE: For the first few weeks, it didn't go well.

MCDOWELL: Well, they were stunned at first. They didn't quite know how to take this new change. The sergeant that I relieved was rather belligerent. He kept using the N-word. So we had come to knuckle junction two or three times (laughter), more busted lips and black eyes. And we fought, and those Koreans thought we were nuts.

PRICE: Months later, though, McDowell was wounded, and that same sergeant ran to help carry him to safety.

MCDOWELL: And complaining all the way, you know, using the N-word.

PRICE: After the war, that sergeant asked to work with McDowell, and they became close enough that McDowell later traveled to the man's funeral. He says some Montford Point Marines remain bitter about their time there, and he doesn't blame them. But he said he and many others went on to better lives than they thought possible.

MCDOWELL: In 23 years of getting around and dealing with all kinds of people in a variety of different circumstances, it helped me in many, many ways. It gave me the ambition to go to school and get a degree. The combination of that plus schooling, I found out that I wasn't afraid to make decisions.

PRICE: At 94 years old, McDowell says he knows every visit to his old boot camp could be the last. And he fears that after all the Montford Point Marines are gone, their significance may be lost, too.

MCDOWELL: As time goes by, I think this whole business of Montford Point will sort of fade into oblivion.

PRICE: But some of the buildings they used will stand as a reminder, now armored better against time and storms.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.