by Claudia Bustamante

Every year, residents of Lucca, in Tuscany, celebrate the end of Nazi occupation by honoring the Americans who came to liberate it.

In 1944, much of occupied Tuscany was freed by the U.S. Army 92nd Infantry Division, the only segregated division to fight in Europe during World War II. They were known as buffalo soldiers.

“Here we were in World War II, giving them their freedom and not even free ourselves,” said Ivan Houston, a former Army sergeant and author of “Black Warriors: The Buffalo Soldiers of World War II.”

“We were second-class citizens.”

Houston, along with original African-American members of the U.S. Marine Corps, shared their personal experiences with segregation, discrimination and forgotten history during a panel discussion presented by the USC School of Social Work.

In honor of Social Work Month, “The Stories of Unsung Black Military Heroes” provided a forum in which the veterans could impart their stories.

“Social workers have always taken the lead to educate others about historical social injustices and to provide a platform to validate and honor those who have endured injustice,” said Russana Rowles, clinical associate professor of field education.

“It was the perfect time to tell the stories of these heroes who fought for the right to fight,” said Rowles, who organized the event along with Michael Johnson, the school’s field placement development coordinator.

Houston was a 19-year-old California college student when he joined the Army in 1943.

“I knew about segregation and discrimination, but it wasn’t until I went from San Pedro to Georgia that I truly experienced it,” he said about his life after basic training.

Out of a group of 30 Army recruits, only two were black. Once they reached El Paso, Texas, curtains had to go up around Houston and the other recruit to block them from view during meals.

The other panelists were all members of the Montford Point Marines—retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Robert Reid and retired Capt. Ed Hicks, both of whom enlisted in 1948 and were original members of the segregated corps. Also on the panel was Sgt. Joseph Bazile, a Vietnam era Marine who enlisted in 1963 and told his personal stories of exposure to Agent Orange and experiencing discrimination even after integration.

On June 25, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 prohibiting racial discrimination in the national defense industry. The order allowed for the U.S. Marine Corps to recruit and enlist African Americans. Recruitment began the following year, and the first of about 20,000 black Marines were sent to basic training at Camp Montford Point in Jacksonville, N.C.

“I never realized the Marine Corps was segregated,” said Reid, who was originally from Massachusetts and experienced a culture shock upon arrival in North Carolina.

“As a black Marine, you could only serve in certain areas. The only thing blacks could do was service duties, so I was in the fire department,” he said.

Segregation continued until President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948; however, the Marines didn’t fully integrate until years later during the Korean War.

In 2012, the Montford Point Marines were presented with a Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their personal sacrifice and service.

Unlike the buffalo soldiers or the Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines never received the same level of recognition. Many continued to experience discrimination even after returning from war.

Bringing awareness to this history was why James Maddox, USC Master of Social Work candidate and Vietnam veteran, helped assemble the panelists.

“This is history that is quickly being lost,” Maddox said. “Social work students need to know their history if they’re going to be effective at working with veterans. It’s important to be able to have true knowledge of diversity.”

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