Brig. Gen. Terry Van Williams didn’t mention the big milestone when he became the first African American commanding general aboard the base that is the face of the U.S. Marine Corps.
He was probably right because, regardless of race, his charge is to successfully run the Parris Island boot camp in Port Royal as it transforms 20,000 young men and women into Marines each year.
That’s how the general will be judged, not by the color of his skin.
But in Beaufort County, we can appreciate the significance of the command he took in a patriotic ceremony June 20.
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We have personally known men who paved the way for him on this sandy soil.
We knew local men who broke the color barrier in the Marine Corps. They served Parris Island commanding generals as a chef or steward. Oh, how happy they would have been to see the tables turned.
We knew Master Sgt. Frederick James Drake Sr. who was put in charge of the first blacks to be stationed on Parris Island in the spring of 1949. His men lived in tents because the barracks were for whites only. But that was a big step from the segregated base at Montford Point, N.C., where he trained, and where all black recruits trained from 1942 to 1949.
“Top” Drake retired to Port Royal after a 30-year career. We knew him as a leader in his family of seven children, and in his church, in social services, in the community, and in business.
We knew his best friend and next-door neighbor, Gunnery Sgt. LaSalle Vaughn. We knew “Sarge” Vaughn as a member of the Montford Point Marine Association Hall of Fame, and as a leader in his family of seven children, his church, social services, and business.
Vaughn never minced words about his experience in a Corps he loved, but didn’t want him. He said he could forgive the discrimination he lived through, but not forget it.
We knew Master Gunnery Sgt. Fred Washington Sr. of Beaufort, who joined the Corps at age 31 for greater opportunity than Jim Crow society offered him. We knew him as a commanding general in his home, his church and in civic affairs.
The Rev. James E. Moore of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Dale became the first black sergeant major at Parris Island in 1993. Today, he is national chaplain of the Montford Point Marine Association.
He told me the appointment of Gen. Williams is a significant symbol.
“It shows how far we’ve come as a society,” he said, “as well as a Marine Corps.”
Wisdom of our fathers
Parris Island was integrated a good 20 years before the local public schools.
Maj. Gen. Alfred H. Noble was the commanding general when it happened. By the end of 1949, the platoons and NCO clubs were integrated, and the first two black female recruits reported to Parris Island.
“This innovation not only produced no unfavorable reaction among the Marines, but it also had no unfavorable reaction among the civilian citizens of South Carolina in the vicinity,” Noble would recall later in an oral history interview.
“Of course I consulted the civilian leaders first and told them what I was going to do and got their advice and promises of help to try and stop any adverse criticism of it.”
No doubt, the new commanding general is aware of all that has taken place to make his arrival seem routine.
He is the son of a career U.S. Air Force officer, and he and Betty Williams have two sons of their own.
Surely he can appreciate the best advice we can give him as he begins his historic assignment at Parris Island.
It comes from the children of Drake, Vaughn and Washington. Their fathers are gone now, but their words still ring in their ears:
You are Americans, and you have an equal right to everything in America.
You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to work for it. There is no entitlement.
You’ve got to step up with no fear. You must always be prepared.
You must show respect. You must be an example for children. You must have manners, education, faith, civic involvement, oratory skills and the ability to debate with facts.
“Those who are content to stay in the valley will get no news from the mountain,” they were told.
“God is always watching you. He will let you know when you do something wrong.”
Semper Fi, Gen. Williams, and welcome to the Lowcountry.