The Continental Marines: Origin of Black Marines in America

The Marine Corps was first formed by the direction of the Continental Congress consisting of two battalions of Marines. Initially, the Congress anticipated that that the personnel for the Marine Corps would be furnished by General George Washington from his own Continental Army. However, General Washington had a shortage of men without any to spare for the newly formed Marine Corps. The Marines had to recruit their own personnel.

The first recorded Afro-America to enlist in the Continental Marines during the American Revolution a black man by the name of John Martin (called Keto) a slave of a certain William Marshall of Wilmington, Delaware without the knowledge of his owner. It is documented that on April 1776, he embarked aboard the Continental brig Reprisal in Philadelphia and later went down with his ship near Newfoundland in October, 1777.

The second black Continental Marine was Isaac Walker, who enlisted on August 27, 1776 in Captain Robert Mullins Philadelphia Company of Continental Marines, followed on October 1, 1776 by a third black Marine named simply “Orange”As of April 1, 1777, both remained on the muster rolls, and served at the second battle of Trenton January 2, 1777, and at the Battle of Princeton. These few black Marines were pioneers and were not succeeded by other until 1942.

Later, however, strong political forces compelled Washington to ban the recruitment and enlistment of men of color though they have fought gallantly in numerous military campaigns. Therefore, when the Marine Corps was formed in 1775, the ban continued for 167 years until June 25, 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 which ended discrimination in the defense industry and the Marine Corps. But because segregation still existed they were forced to train at a separate facility at Camp Montford Point, New River, North Carolina. The very first black battalion of these Marines was the 51st Defense Battalion, honorably known as the “Mighty 51st”.