A group of African-American military veterans — including one of the first ever to serve in the U.S. Marines Corps — are making a desperate plea to save their chapter hall of the past 35 years and the history its walls contain.
The Montford Point Marines were restricted to a segregated boot camp in Camp Lejeune, N.C., and served from 1942-1949.
In Chicago, the group’s chapter operates out of a building in the 7000 block of South Vincennes Avenue in Englewood.
But after years of falling behind on property taxes and building repairs, the Montford Point Marine Association, Inc. Chicago Chapter No. 2 has asked Cook County officials for more time to pay $75,000 in back taxes. If they don’t come up with the funds — or get an extension — by Feb. 1, they will lose the building; Pine Valley Real Estate of Chicago purchased the chapter’s tax debt.
In November, the group’s president, Sharon Stokes-Parry, started a GoFundMe account to raise money for repairs and property taxes.
But by late December, just $4,235 of the $200,000 goal had been raised.
“Anyone that’s served this country doesn’t have it easy. The donations are not coming in. We don’t have the sphere of influence we once had,” Stokes-Parry said.
For Stokes-Parry and the group’s other members, the battle for their home is similar to ones the veterans fought both overseas and when they returned back home. Their contributions to the military are long-forgotten, even ignored.
“This is a part of Marine history I had never heard of,” said Stokes-Parry, 52, a Marine from 1985 to 1995 who lives on the South Side. “Their struggle predates the civil rights movement. They had to fight for the right to fight.”
Four of the men who served in the first group of black Marines, known as the “Original 400,” are active in the Chicago chapter.
“We couldn’t go to certain areas unless we were given an escort,” recalled Frank Thrasher, 97, who served in the Marines from 1943 to 1946 and now lives on the West Side. “We had to fight white Marines who tried to push past us. It was horrible.”
One of the other original Marines, David Dinkins, went on the become the first black mayor of New York City.
In 2011, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to every member of the Montford Point Marines, both living and deceased.
James Reynolds, 91, who served in the Army and the Marine Corps, recalled that moment.
“I had so many tears in my eyes, so many of us will never get to see this,” said Reynolds, who lives on the South Side.
Association dates to 1965
In 1965, the Montford Point Marines Association was created and chapters opened around the country. In Chicago, the group’s first location was near 75th Street and King Drive, but it burned down. They moved to the current location in 1983. It features many photos of past members, flags, honors and other memorabilia, along with an entertainment room, bar and meeting space.
Over the years, the group’s scholarship program has given $40,000 to students. Their Christmas Basket program has donated $50,000 to shut-in veterans and needy families, and a back-to-school program has provided over 1,000 book bags to kids.
Recently, the Chicago chapter has been on the losing side in a war of attrition, even though the group’s membership is open to members of any military branch.
The Chicago chapter has 35 members ranging in age from 38 to 97; they include veterans of every war America has fought from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom. At its peak, the chapter had 150 members.
The building’s two banquet halls once generated some income, being rented out for weddings and used for meetings of many of Chicago’s Masonic and Black Greek organizations. But a leaking roof and other problems forced the chapter to close them seven years ago.
“Unfortunately, time catches up with us all,” Stokes-Parry said.
In addition to its members, the association is seeking assistance from the organizations who’ve used the space — often for free — in the past.
“A lot of individuals have met here and we’ve provided them a meeting place at no charge. And those organizations have gone on to find their own homes,” Stokes-Parry said. “I think it would be wonderful if those organizations thought back to where they began.”