By Barney Blakeney
They say there aren’t enough hours in the day. For years, I thought my lack of sufficient time to get stuff done was due to my time management – setting priorities and scheduling accordingly.
I’ve come to think no matter how well you do those things, when you’ve got a lot of stuff to do, there never is enough time to do it all. So it’s taken me a long time to get to the story of Mr. James Campbell and the Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to the first African Americans to become U.S. Marines at Montford Point in North Carolina. The Congressional Medal of Honor, bestowed by Congress, is the highest awarded to civilians.
I’ve known Mr. Campbell quite a few years now. Like so many others, he picked me up and lifts me higher.
The late educator and athletic coach Joseph A. Moore and social activist/businessman A.J. Clement Jr. also are among those extraordinary Black men who’ve provided me guidance. I guess their generation understands the obligation to bring young Black men along.
Like ‘Pop’ Moore and Mr. Clement, I learn something new and extraordinary about Mr. Campbell every day. Their method of teaching is so subtle I never realize they’re given me something until I’ve got it.
I got the invitation to the April presentation of the Montford Point award, but got so tied up with other stuff, I didn’t attend. Thankfully Mr. Campbell is deliberate. He made sure I got the information anyway.
Although I’m some 30 years his junior, I still have to keep up with Mr. Campbell – intellectually and physically! I’ve come to accept that I’ll probably never be able to match his steps intellectually and will catch the devil trying to keep up with him physically. Such an unselfish soul, that old man is all over the place!
The Montford Point story is one he wants us to know. During World War II Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C. near Camp Lejeune became the training camp for the first Black U.S. Marines. Jim Campbell was among the first of 20,000 Black marines trained at the camp from 1942-1949.
As in previous wars, African American marines were subjected to the same racism and discrimination as Blacks across the country. But despite the racism and segregation, they went on to serve their country honorably.
According to Wikipedia, “Recruiting for the ‘Montford Marines’ began on June 1, 1942. The 1,200 men in the quota were housed in prefabricated huts.
“Railroad tracks divided white residents from the camp for African American troops, and the black recruits were not allowed to enter the main base, Camp Lejeune, unless accompanied by a white Marine.
“By 1945, all drill instructors and many NCOs at Montford Point were African Americans. In July 1948, despite strong opposition from Democrats of the segregated South, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which required the desegregation of the military. In 1949 Montford Point was deactivated, and new black recruits were sent to Parris Island and Camp Pendleton. During the Korean War, the United States Marine Corps fully integrated.”
I asked Mr. Campbell how he got to Montford Point and what happened after. He told me stories about a life journey that took him from ‘Back The Green’ on the Charleston peninsula to New York City, NY, Tanzania on the African continent and back to Charleston. Along the way he met people, learned things and did stuff far too extensive to note here. Just listening to the brother is an education in itself!
His mother, Eva Juliette Jones, a 1916 Avery Normal Institute graduate and Johns Island teacher, taught him to read. That enabled him to embark on the journey that’s become a lifetime of teaching others and a continual struggle to empower the masses of people.
Campbell said he was raised on an intellectual diet of ‘adult talk’ about W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, the NAACP and books from Dart Hall on Kracke Street.
His high school years at Voorhees in Denmark included summer jobs in Charleston in the ‘boy’ category – waiting tables at Henry’s Restaurant and being the bellboy at the Fort Sumter and Francis Marion hotel.
At Voorhees, he learned the trade of bricklaying, but constantly was chided by a high school English teacher to stop wasting a good brain. The bombing of Pearl Harbor – he and classmates joked “Who is Pearl Harbor and where is she?” – led to his 1943 volunteer into the Marine Corp.
Campbell said Black folks’ unachieved ‘Double Victory’ hope for democracy at home and abroad became abundantly clear when he returned to Charleston in 1946.
He used his GI Bill to attend Morgan State University where he eventually majored in English and Theater.
His passion for theater led him to New York City where he eventually met Southern Christian Leadership Conference fundraiser Odell Jackson while volunteering at SCLC’s South Bronx office.
In New York, Mr. Campbell’s work as a teacher, continued involvement in theater and volunteerism in the labor and civil rights arenas paired him with iconic figures such as Paul Robeson, Malcolm X, Clarence Williams, III and Bayard Rustin. Ultimately his leftist ideology took him and his young family to Tanzania where he taught English nine years. He describes his time in Tanzania as the richest experience of his life.
Mr. Campbell returned to the U.S. about eight years before retiring in 1991. He returned to Charleston and volunteered at the Medical University of South Carolina 15 years eventually co-teaching a bio ethics course.
Throughout his life, Mr. Campbell has donated his time and resources – science books to Burke High School and a collection to the Avery Institute at the College of Charleston.
He makes time to stay active and keep moving, but at 93 not so fast, he concedes.