Columbia native receives high honor for being one of first African-American Marines

Thursday, June 28, 2012 | 6:39 p.m. CDT; updated 7:28 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 28, 2012

COLUMBIA — On Wednesday, President Barack Obama presented Columbia resident Lawrence Diggs  with a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor in the United States, for serving as one of the first African-American Marines.

The World War II veteran was joined at the White House ceremony by nearly 400 of his fellow Montford Point Marines, a group of segregated Marines that trained in North Carolina.

Roughly 20,000 African-Americans trained at Montford Point Camp during World War II, according to a website that recounts the unit's history. Over time, many of these Marines proved their worth and were promoted to become the Marines' first black drill instructors.

As racial attitudes slowly changed, the camp was ultimately desegregated in 1949 and renamed Camp Johnson, making it the only Marine base named after an African-American.

Diggs could not be reached for comment. John Tilghman, 89, of St. Peters was also among those honored.

From a young age, Tilghman knew he would follow his brothers' footsteps and join the Armed Forces. When President Franklin Roosevelt signed a directive in 1942 allowing blacks to serve in the Marines, a doorway opened and allowed Tilghman to follow his own path.

"I had four brothers in the military back in 1942 in the Navy, the Army and the Coast Guard," Tilghman said. "I had no other choice but to join the Marine Corps."

Not even Tilghman's father could change his 18-year-old son's mind with claims that at 5-foot-5-inches tall, he was too short, or that white Marines would not welcome him.

"He wouldn't tell me not to join the Marine Corps, but he told me the problems I was going to be up against," Tilghman said. "I told him, 'I'm going to join the Marine Corps anyway.'"

Tilghman recalled the discrimination he and his fellow Montford Point Marines faced during his time there.

"I should not have been disrespected because of the color of my skin," Tilghman said. "I shouldn't have heard the words that 'This is a white man's club,' 'You've got three shots and you're done' and 'You are not wanted.'"

Tilghman also was recently recognized by Michael McMillan, co-regional ambassador and 58th annual honorary co-chair of the NAACP's East St. Louis Chapter for his service in the face of adversity.

"It's extremely appropriate that the president give credit to the Montford Point Marines for being the civil rights pioneers that they are," McMillan said. "They paved the way for opening the doors for all of the Marines and members of military and society in general to assist us in becoming the more open, less segregated society that we are today."

Montford Point Marines Vice President James Carr echoed McMillan. 

"We're hoping that this will be a significant steppingstone into correcting some of the military history," Carr said. "The Montford Point Marines' legacy and story is one that is untold, and we're doing everything we can to make sure that the story is out there for the American public."

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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