NEW YORK – Friends, family and Marines past and present gathered Sept. 8 at the Harlem YMCA to honor Clement Poussaint, an original Montford Point Marine, with the Congressional Gold Medal.
The Congressional Gold Medal, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, is the highest award that can be bestowed upon a civilian and is awarded to individuals who have affected American history and whose actions will continue to affect it.
As one of the original Montford Point Marines, Poussaint and his fellow Marines paved the way for the end of segregation within the military by serving honorably as one of the first African American Marines during World War II.
In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 allowing African Americans to be recruited into the Marine Corps. Those first African American Marines received their basic training at Montford Point, N.C., and served in ammunition and depot companies. The 13,000 who deployed to combat brought ammunition and supplies to Marines on the front lines and evacuated the wounded and dead back to their ships. After President Harry S. Truman issued executive order 9981 in September of 1949, Montford Point was shut down and renamed Camp Johnson after Sgt. Maj. Gilbert Johnson, one of the first African American Marines. Today, all recruits regardless of race, color or religious denomination are trained together at the Corps’ recruit training depots in Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego, Calif.
The Marines who served with Poussaint remember him as a capable leader and a good friend.
“Poussaint was the 2nd Defense Battalion’s acting sergeant major when we were in Saipan,” said Alexander Edwards, a Montford Point Marine and Congressional Gold Medal recipient as well. “I was the acting first sergeant for Able Battery which is how we knew each other. He was a good man, a good Marine and he’s been a good friend. He brought us home.”
Several Montford Point Marines were awarded the medal in June of this year at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., but Poussaint was unable to attend the prestigious award ceremony due to personal reasons.
“It means a whole lot for him and all Montford Point Marines that he gets his medal today,” Edwards said. “I was heartbroken that he couldn’t make it to Washington, D.C., with us to get his gold medal but I think it’s tremendous that they made provisions for him to receive his medal today.”
Maj. Gregory Wyche, assistant inspector and instructor officer for 6th Communications Battalion, awarded Poussaint his gold medal during the ceremony. Despite his frail condition, Poussaint, a proud Marine, insisted on standing without the assistance of his walker to receive his award.
“It’s an honor to be here to commemorate the courage, perseverance and self-sacrifice of the Montford Point Marines,” said Wyche. “The actions of men like Mr. Poussaint set the stage for the desegregation of the armed forces in 1949 and the desegregation of our society at large. If it wasn’t for what they did during World War II, I would not have the opportunities that I have today.
Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Celement’s brother, spoke on his brother’s behalf. Clement Poussaint was unable to comment due to his medical condition.
“My brother has always been proud of his service,” Alvin Poussaint said. “He was very proud about becoming acting sergeant major and when he left the Marine Corps he continued to serve his country. He became part of the security team for the secretary of the treasury and eventually served in the secret service under President Bush. This award will stay with him and it’s something he will be very proud of.”