How Nate Boone overcame the racism of the 1940s

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In 1945, in Englewood, N.J., 19-year-old Nate Boone, an African-American, wanted more than anything else to go to college. He was told that, by doing so, he would have the opportunity to escape the poverty that surrounded him. The escape route was clear to him, but how to access it would be a daunting challenge.

Nate's father had recently passed away from the ravages of having been gassed in World War I. Soon after, his 42 year-old mother would succumb to tuberculosis. His aunt, who raised him, was in no financial condition to pay for college. Nate discovered a possible way out.

In 1944, Congress passed the G.I. Bill, which was designed to provide funds for military veterans to go to college. This would become Nate's escape tool. But to do so, he would have to join the military, and so he did in 1946, enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps (because he liked the Marine uniform). He would soon discover that the challenges he had faced in Englewood were minor compared to what lay ahead.

In 1946, Nate boarded a bus in Newark, NJ, that would take him part-way to Camp Lejeune, N.C. In Washington, D.C., he embarked on the second phase of the trip. But this time he was ordered to sit in the back of the bus for the balance of the 300-mile journey to the Marine base. It was the first time in Nate's young life that he came face to face with segregation, but not the last.

Upon arriving at the sprawling military base, which he thought would be his home for the next 10 weeks, he was told to stay on the bus — African-American Marines were neither trained nor housed at Camp Lejeune. The Marines had a designated place of segregation "for Negro Marine Recruits" — Montford Point.

Montford Point was at the far end of base. Its physical condition was more like what the French condoned at Devil's Island, in French Guiana. The physical conditions of the base were only part of the challenges that Nate had to overcome.

All of the recruit training battalion officers were white, many of them southerners. Worse, they had accepted the 17th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Thomas Holcomb's 1941 edict, "If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites." Between 1942 and 1949 (when Montford Point was closed), 20,000 African-American Marines endured the same fate as Nate.

Nate never lost sight of his goal, and in 1952, under the G.I. Bill, he graduated from Bates College. Several years later, he went on to graduate from Boston University's law school. In 1957, he married his college sweetheart, Harriet, and they honeymooned in Vermont. It was in Winhall, Vermont, that in 1989 he and Harriet took up full time residency, having retired after a 30 year practice of law, in Hackensack, N.J.

On June 27, 2012, Nate and Harriet returned to Washington, DC. He and 430 surviving members of the Montford Point Marines were honored by the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Marine Corps, with our Nation's highest civilian award, The Congressional Gold Medal.

On February 17, 2017, in Montpelier, an historic event took place. The Vermont Legislature, Gov. Phil Scott's administration, and the Vermont Supreme Court all bestowed honors to Nate for what he had endured and how he went about overcoming the enormous challenges placed in front of him. It would be the first time in Vermont's history that an individual would be honored on the same day by all three branches of government.

My wife and I escorted Nate and Harriet to the Statehouse on that recent cold and snowy February morning.

It was unfortunate that the Montpelier marchers, who were in front of the very same building only a few weeks before, were not present to hear how one Vermonter overcame the ugliness of racism as it had existed in the 1940s.

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.

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