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A new battleground

Veterans of the armed forces' segregated past fight to keep their legacy alive.

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James A. Reynolds Jr. - MARIAH KARSON
  • Mariah Karson
  • James A. Reynolds Jr.

The Montford Point Marine Association Chapter Two, on the 7000 block of South Vincennes, is a veterans organization whose founding members were part of the first segregated unit of Marines during WWII. These Leathernecks were similar in importance to the Tuskegee Airmen but remain much less known. Though MPMA has opened membership to honorably discharged veterans of all races, the local chapter currently has only 35 members, down from a high of more than 150 decades ago. The current MPMA veteran's center was purchased in 1984 after a fire destroyed its location on 75th Street in 1983. Today it is run by a handful of volunteer members, led by president Sharon Stokes-Parry.

MPMA's mission is to provide assistance to veterans and continued service to the community. But the organization is fighting to survive, with a tax debt of more than $73,000 on the building, which is in desperate need of a new roof and a new HVAC system, among other repairs. Its story is similar to American Legion posts, Elks lodges, and other private clubs and fraternal organizations I've visited across the country: an American community rich with history, neglected for years and fading from public memory. (In 2017 I published a book, American Legion, about four small posts.) MPMA raised more than $30,000 with a GoFundMe campaign, and in late January former mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza "purged" herself of $141,550 in campaign contributions that were associated with 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis by making a public donation to MPMA. An exploratory committee is currently weighing possible options: repair the building and rent out space again; merge with another veterans' organization; sell the building and meet regularly at another location. All these options include paying the tax debt in full.

On my first visit to the hall I attended a meeting with Ray Doeksen, a service officer from the American Legion's Tattler Post 973 on the north side, who was interested in seeing if there was anything he or the Tattler could do to help out. The meeting began and closed with a prayer, with members bowing their heads and holding hands in a room with a leaky drop ceiling, 1980s mirrored wall, and single space heater. After the meeting we hung out at the bar; it was a Sunday and the crowd had come out for one of the final football games of the season. In subsequent visits to the post I brought sound recording specialist David Obermeyer to assist me in documenting members; he has returned many times since and photographed members on Friday nights.

James A. Reynolds Jr. (above)
Born: 1927, Memphis, TN
Inducted: 1943-1945, USMC; 1950-1951, Army, Korean War
Staff Sergeant, Quartermaster

Reynolds Jr. was drafted twice into segregated units. During WWII he was sent along with black marine recruits to train at Montford Point, a segregated section of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina—the largest marine base in the eastern United States—with less than hospitable conditions. In 2012 Reynolds received a Congressional Gold Medal of Honor along with all the other original Montford Point Marines in recognition for their role in pulling down racial barriers in the armed forces.
Paul K. Knox Jr. - MARIAH KARSON
  • Mariah Karson
  • Paul K. Knox Jr.
Paul K. Knox Jr.
Born: 1946, Chicago, IL
Enlisted: 9/13/1964 - 9/13/1968, E-5, USMC, Vietnam

Knox Jr. never spoke about his service in Vietnam. “I kept it in,” he said. He was officially diagnosed with PTSD in 2015. He finds comaraderie at MPMA, where he is vice president, with other vets. “You have to have lived it to realize it.”

Harry G. Reid - MARIAH KARSON
  • Mariah Karson
  • Harry G. Reid
Harry G. Reid
Born: 1942, Chicago, IL
Enlisted: 9/1/1966 - 8/31/2002, 33rd ASG, IL National Guard, Command Sgt. Major

Reid has fought for civil rights throughout his life: he participated in the Freedom Riders bus campaign, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was in the unique position of serving as a National Guard Military Police officer during the 1968 Chicago Riots. In 1999, Reid received the Roy Wilkins Renown Service Award from the NAACP.
Sharon Stokes Parry - MARIAH KARSON
  • Mariah Karson
  • Sharon Stokes Parry
Sharon Stokes-Parry
Born: 1966, Chicago, IL
Enlisted: 5/1985 - 5/1995, Sgt. E-5, USMC

Stokes Parry said she “wanted to work to preserve legacy and help veterans through service.” MPMA encourages people to get in touch if they would like to donate financially, or their time and skills, and for more veterans in the community to join as active members to help keep the legacy of the original Montford Point Marines alive.
Ron Martin - MARIAH KARSON
  • Mariah Karson
  • Ron Martin
Ron Martin
Born: 1939, Chicago, IL
Enlisted: 8/1959 - 8/1963, Lance Corporal, USMC, Bay of Pigs, USS Wasp (CVS-18)

MPMA Manager Martin wanted to enlist in college at Roosevelt University but after being rejected because the school had already reached their quota of black students he joined the Marine Corps. After his service Martin was the first black regional union director and an organizer for AFL-CIO.
Arthur “Ham” Bingham - MARIAH KARSON
  • Mariah Karson
  • Arthur “Ham” Bingham
Arthur “Ham” Bingham
Born: 1932, Port Gibson, MS
Inducted: 4/15/1952 - 4/14/1955, Korean War, Sgt, U.S. Army

MPMA House Manager Arthur Bingham operated the first black-owned TV repair service in Chicago. He knew several members of the post from when he owned a neighborhood liquor store, a grocery store, and then an ice cream parlor after his service. Bingham was also a CPD officer for eight years.
Willis Whitley - MARIAH KARSON
  • Mariah Karson
  • Willis Whitley

Willis Whitley
Born: 1959, Chicago
Enlisted: 8/28/1980 - 9/30/2013, E-6, U.S. Army, Operation Iraqi Freedom

Whitley joined MPMA, where he is sergeant-at-arms and housing manager, to be around other veterans. He knew Bingham and Reid from his years of service in the National Guard. “We do not have enough help,” he said. “We need to stay together, we are a family.” Although the hall rentals ended in 2014, Mr. Whitley has continued to volunteer his time keeping the hall open and said “I’m going down with the ship, but I would like for it not to go down.”

George Norman Gray - MARIAH KARSON
  • Mariah Karson
  • George Norman Gray
George Norman Gray
Born: 1948, Chicago, IL
Inducted: 3/20/1968 - 1/19/1970, SP4, U.S. Army, two Tet Offensives, Vietnam

Gray joined MPMA in 1988 because his professional expertise as an accountant and bookkeeper was needed. He suffers from cancer and PTSD. “I’m now 100% service connected, catching all kinds for physical, financial, social, mental hell,” he said. “I’m under siege! Sick of all this, I’m trying to get some help.”

Henry Cheatham - MARIAH KARSON
  • Mariah Karson
  • Henry Cheatham
Henry Cheatham
Born: 1943, Bentonia, MS
Enlisted, 10/7/1963 - 10/4/1965, E-4, U.S. Army, 7th Army, Germany
MPMA’s entertainment manager

Cheatham came from a military family and decided to enlist at the beginning of Vietnam with other civil rights workers. He applied for the USMC but was denied because he had been arrested for marching without a parade permit in Jackson, Mississippi. “I really have a pretty good feeling about it,” he said. “I think we will make it.”  v

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