Sumter's Betty Stover traveled in March to Jacksonville, N.C., to accept the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of her husband, the late James W. Stover Jr.
In June 2012, Congress awarded the Montford Point Marines the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award that Congress can confer. And in March of this year, individual members of the black Marine group received the medals.
The Montford Point Marines were the first blacks to serve in the Marine Corps. Segregation during the 1940s prohibited blacks from training with whites at camps at Parris Island or San Diego. So the Marines created a separate training facility at Montford Point Camp near Camp Lejuene in Jacksonville, N.C. Between 1942 and 1949, nearly 20,000 men trained at Montford Point. The Marine Corps was the last branch of U.S. services to admit blacks.
"There were only five medals awarded to Marines who were still living," said Stover, whose husband died in 2005. "Thirty-two were awarded posthumously."
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Stover said she wasn't surprised when she learned of the honor.
"He always loved the Marines," she said, speaking about her husband. "He said they made a man out of him."
She said in his early life, James Stover appeared to be headed down the wrong road—but it wasn't entirely his own fault.
"When he was a child, he got ringworms," she said. "And back then, doctors didn't know how to treat them. But two sisters who lived across the road from him told him to come over and climb up in the fig tree. They told him to rub the fig juice in his hair and it would cure the ringworms. And it did."
But there was a side effect no one predicted.
"His hair turned white," she said. "So other boys bullied him about it in school."
She said James never walked away from a fight.
"His mother was a teacher at the same school," she said. "But it didn't matter. He'd fight anyway."
She said James was a student at S.C. State College (now University) when they met.
"He had just come back from the Marines, and I thought he was the nicest man I'd ever met," she said. "There was no hint of the young man who would fight everyone. The Marines taught him respect. And I think they helped instill the drive that was inside of him. He was able to have a different attitude on things."
James Stover graduated from S.C. State and later earned a master's degree from the Teacher's College of Columbia University in New York. He became a Ford Foundation Scholar and continued his master's studies at the University of Miami in Florida.
After teaching in Chester, James Stover moved to Sumter and was the first black assistant principal at Edmunds High School. He would later become principal of Bates Elementary School, Bates Middle School and Lincoln High School. He retired from Sumter School District 17 in 1980.
She said he considered earning a doctorate but decided he wanted to give back to the community. So James Stover became a Realtor and opened his own agency. He also founded radio station WICI 94.7. He served for seven years on the Sumter City-County Planning Commission, the last two years as its chairman; was a member of the Sumter Chamber of Commerce; Mental Health Association; Santee Senior Services; Sumter Gallery of Art Association of School Administrators; National Education Association; SC Education Association; National Association of Realtors; Sumter Board of Realtors; former Boy Scout leader; Omega Psi Phi fraternity; and was a life member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Betty Stover's eyes teared up when she thought about the award.
"He would have been so proud," she said. "I wish he could have been here to get it himself. He always talked about the Marines."
Stover said that, even though he served in a time when segregation ruled, her husband believed people were people, no matter the race.
"To him, the Marines were the way for him to mature. They made a man out of him. I think he would encourage young people who might be bullied not to give up because you never know what great things might lie ahead."