In 1965, a group Marine veterans met in Philadelphia to share memories of a unique experience that had made history.
They were among the first black men to become Marines at a place called Montford Point, North Carolina, on Camp Lejeune. Many had served their time in the Corps and left the service after World War II ended. The segregated boot camp remained until 1949 and training was integrated.
Decades later, in 1965 the first Montford Point Marines chapter was established in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the Marine Corps.
The next year, the second chapter made its home on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois ― called by some the capital of black America.
But after more than half a century of being the home to those first black Marines who settled in Chicago after the war, the chapter faces a looming deadline to raise $75,000 to pay back taxes or face closure.
Edwin J. Fizer, 93, had wanted to fly, so he went to the Army Air Corps office. With some choice words they told him to leave. He then heard that the Marines had opened to recruiting black men for the war effort.
A few months shy of his 17th birthday he enlisted and the New Orleans native soon found himself at a desolate section of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, called Montford Point.
“The DIs (drill instructors), they didn’t want us in the Marine Corps, so they told us they would make us wish we had never signed up and beg to get out,” Fizer said. “All that did was harden our resolve.”
Soon after basic training and gunnery training he shipped off for the Pacific theater with the 51st Defense Battalion, one of two all-black Marine battalions.
He saw duty in the Marshall Islands, Guam, Tinian and Okinawa before Japan surrendered. He left the Corps but his service and the friends he made were something he wouldn’t leave behind.
After school he landed in Chicago and later became one of the early Montford Point chapter No. 2 members. The member roster grew to more than 200 within a few years.
It was a place of refuge for black veterans who felt they didn’t belong at some of the larger organizations at the time such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars or American Legion.
They kept their focus on returning black Vietnam veterans in the Chicago community and on helping downtrodden folks who weren’t veterans with school scholarships, a food pantry and other ways of giving back, he said.
In recent years, through its scholarship program, it has given $40,000 to students, the Christmas basket provided $50,000 for veterans and needy families, a back to school program provided over 1,000 book bags. It has provided more than $50,000 at veterans' bingo at the local VA hospital.
Chapter President Sharon Stokes-Perry hadn’t even heard of the Montford Point Marines when she enlisted in the Marines in 1985. She didn’t hear of them at all through her 10 years in service, even though she had training at Camp Johnson, the former site of Montford Point.
She wasn’t even taught that the renamed camp got its name from Sgt. Maj. Gilbert “Hashmark” Johnson, a legend in Marine circles. Johnson was one of the first black drill instructors in the Corps, training many of the second wave of recruits to hit Montford Point during World War II.
Johnson served six years in the Army and 10 years in the Navy before moving to the Marines when they finally opened their ranks to black. He would serve 17 years in the Corps.
He also led black Marines on dozens of combat patrols on Guam while serving with the 52nd Defense Battalion.
It wasn’t until after she left the Marines when Stokes-Perry was invited to a Marine Corps Birthday Ball celebration at the Chicago chapter that she learned more of the story of the Montford Point history and the chapter.
That was around 2006. Back then, she joked, the members were young. Many of the original crew were in their 80s. Total membership though has dwindled down to about 35 she said.
But that’s not isolated to this organization. Both veterans and civic organizations that once saw robust rolls have steadily declined in memberships and chapters for decades, beginning in the 1970s and escalating in the past two decades.
Now they have a dozen Montford Pointers ranging in age from ages 91 to 97. Six are still very active in the chapter, despite their age, she said.
Losing the chapter would not only hit the immediate area’s charitable needs, but it would ripple into what the chapter gives in its members’ legacy.
“I think the community loses a whole group of role models. I believe they lose the opportunity to interact with living history,” Stokes-Perry said. “These gentlemen have worked so hard, gave so much and asked for so little that it would be a shame for them to lose a place to gather together.”
Even members who’ve moved away from Chicago stay involved, she said.
Ted Peters, 95, remembered hearing on the radio that the Marines were accepting black recruits. He was 19 years old in 1943 and decided that was the outfit for him.
The Mississippi native joined up and learned the intricacies of anti-aircraft guns did his hitch.
When his troopship returned home from the Pacific he and his fellow Marines thought things might be different. But, they had not.
“They introduced us right back to segregation right quick,” he remembers.
Like Fizer, he found a wife, work and a life in Chicago. He also found the Montford Point chapter shortly after it started.
He and other veterans had gotten together to swap stories and catch up. An estimated 20,000 black Marines were trained at Montford Point during the war. It made for a small community within a small community and seemed as though everyone knew each other or knew another Montford Pointer, he said.
A few years ago, he moved back to Mississippi to be with his sister but he still checks in the chapter and remains a member. It’s a must visit part of any trip back to Chicago.
The days of hundreds of members flocking to the center are over for the original Montford Pointers.
“We’re getting to be an endangered species, really,” Peters said.
But the hope is that younger veterans and newly returning veterans, Marines or other service branches, will continue the legacy, Stokes-Perry said.
The back taxes were not ignored, dwindling memberships and a facility in bad need of repairs have reduced their methods for bringing in revenue.
In its heyday, the chapter held banquets, allowed other organizations to use the facilities, often without charging.
There’s hope that there might be some generosity from those organizations now, when the chapter needs it.
A recent article and editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times has sparked some local help, they’ve raised nearly $25,000 in the past few weeks in a GoFundMe online fundraising campaign.
And Stokes-Perry said a local veteran picked up 50 applications and promised to find 50 new members.
They’re also reaching out to other Montford Point chapters across the country, Stokes-Perry estimates there are more than 30, to see what help they might provide.
But beyond the tax bills there are needed repairs. Those are estimated to be near $200,000. So, fundraising won’t stop if they meet their May 31 deadline.
Though the challenge is a difficult one, Stokes-Perry and her members see it as one worth taking on.
“We’ve got some big dreams we just have not had an opportunity to express those dream,” she said. “We’re broke but we’re not broken. We have a fighting spirit.”