In the late fall of 2021, I made a startling and remarkable discovery — that my late grandfather was a Montford Point Marine, one of the first 20,000 African American Marines in the history of the United States. It wasn’t until I came across an online article that I became aware of these Marines, and that, in recognition of their service and sacrifices to their country during World War II and for their part at the beginning of the desegregation of the United States Marine Corps, the last branch of service to accept Black recruits, the Montford Point Marines were awarded a collective United States Congressional Gold Medal in 2012, the highest civilian honor the U.S. Congress gives. On February 19, 2022, my grandfather, Private Maurice L. Burns Sr., was posthumously awarded his replica Congressional Gold Medal.
You are not alone if this sounds new or you don’t know about the Montford Point Marines. The Marine Corps did not do a thorough job of recordkeeping for Montford Point. Moreover, any sacrifices, courage, and service as Marines have largely been forgotten by society. These Marines epitomize the term “hidden figures” because very little has been written about them and for the most part, many, like my grandfather, embraced silence. Thus began my journey of delving into the mysteries of the past to shed light on the present. It has been and still is a journey of research rabbit holes, which has led me to make unexpected and accidental discoveries about Montford Point and the Marines who served there.
Researching and investigating their stories has become my mission as I began to uncover their names and personal histories. My newfound curiosity set off a whole chain of dominoes, eventually leading me to several chance discoveries. One particularly serendipitous find came by way of “Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music” by Edward Berger. I cannot recall how I stumbled upon the biography of the legendary and incomparable American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer Joe Wilder but it was a fortuitous happenstance. While I knew Joe Wilder as a tremendous musician, I had no idea he was also a pioneer who broke down racial barriers into roles never before assumed by African Americans.
I first learned about Joe Wilder when I was enrolled in Dr. David Baker’s History of Jazz class at Indiana University. For those who are not familiar with the esteemed Dr. Baker, he was a jazz legend, composer, and conductor who served as a distinguished professor of music and Department of Jazz Studies chair emeritus in the Jacobs School of Music. Though I was not a music major, I jumped at the chance to enroll in Dr. Baker’s classes like many other non-music majors at Indiana University.
Oftentimes, Dr. Baker would deviate from our lecture/syllabus and regale us with mind-blowing stories about legendary musicians such as John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis. He would share with us what it was like growing up and playing in the Indianapolis Jazz scene during the 1940s and 1950s and talk about the musicians he grew up with including the Montgomery family (Buddy, Monk, and Wes) and his childhood friends J. J. Johnson and Slide Hampton.
On one occasion, Dr. Baker talked about undoubtedly one of the most relatable (for young people) and greatest collaborations of jazz giants in the history of television at the time. In “The Cosby Show,” season 2, episode 17 (1986) “Play It Again, Russell,” Cliff Huxtable convinces his father, Russell “Slide” Huxtable, to come out of retirement to play trombone with his old band, The Jazz Caravan. Slide Hampton provided the audio track for Russell’s trombone, and the actual members of the band included Bootsie Barnes, Art Blakey, Tommy Flannagan, Eric Gale, Jimmy Heath, Percy Heath, Jimmy Oliver, Tito Puente, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, and none other than the gentleman of jazz, trumpeter Joe Wilder. As we would learn, Dr. Baker and Joe Wilder performed and recorded together during the 1960s (if memory serves me correctly) “The Golden Striker” album by John Lewis, with Baker on trombone and Wilder on trumpet. While writing this article, I would also learn that both Wilder and Baker were members of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra (SJMO). Wilder was a charter member of the SJMO, a semi-permanent presence, and a frequent soloist, while Baker was one of the Smithsonian’s maestros and a founding director. Both were honored by the National Endowment for the Arts with its highest honor in jazz, the NEA Masters Award.
I didn’t know much more about Joe Wilder and had no way of knowing that a meaningful coincidence would occur years later, revealing a connection between him and me that I could never have imagined.
During my research on the Montford Point Marines, Edward Berger’s biography, “Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of American Music Barriers” caught my attention. Specifically, Chapter Three, “Integration of the Armed Forces: The Montford Point Marines (1943-1946)”. I was astounded. Joe Wilder was not only a Montford Point Marine but was also one of the first one thousand African American men to serve in the Marine Corps during World War II.
On June 30, 1942, Wilder registered with the Selective Service, but it wasn’t until he was touring with Lionel Hampton that he would be drafted. Wilder left Hampton’s band in April 1943 to be inducted into the United States Marine Corps and shortly thereafter, would find himself headed to the segregated training facility of Montford Point Camp in Jacksonville, North Carolina. From 1942 to 1949, about 20,000 men trained under harsh conditions at this racially segregated base.
Montford Point Camp was swampy and inhabited by snakes, mosquitoes, bears, and alligators. Conditions were rough. The men were forced to live in cardboard tents with concrete floors, potbelly stoves for heat, and outhouses for bathrooms. Training, equipment, and supplies were all inferior. Recruits endured indignities, encountered discrimination, and suffered from inexplicable trauma on and off duty. The hostilities the Black Marines faced on base were amplified by southern discrimination and hatred by the locals. They were always on edge about avoiding trouble and run-ins with local law enforcement and white residents of Jacksonville and surrounding communities.
Treated initially as an experiment; their intellect and performance were doubted. However, these Marines served honorably, won the respect of those who served with them and accomplished everything that was expected and asked of them. Despite the challenges presented to the Montford Pointers, their valor and performance paved the way for our present integrated armed forces, and they have earned their due place in American history.
After boot camp, Wilder qualified as a sharpshooter and was placed in a Special Weapons Group, which meant he would eventually be deployed to combat duty overseas. However, as luck would have it, pianist and composer Bobby Troup (who wrote “Jacksonville” and would later pen “Route 66”) was serving as the morale officer at Montford Point Camp. When Troup learned that Wilder was on base, he had him transferred to the headquarters band. During Wilder’s three years in the Corps, he played in the marching and dance bands and was eventually promoted to Assistant Bandmaster, after which he was honorably discharged as technical sergeant in 1946.
In January 1945, my grandfather and Joe Wilder were both stationed at Headquarters and Service Company, Headquarters Battalion, Montford Point Camp. I often wonder if perhaps my jazz-loving Papa knew of Wilder’s presence on base and was able to enjoy his musical genius, especially when Louis Armstrong played at Montford Point and Joe had the opportunity to perform with Armstrong’s orchestra. I guess I will never know but the thing we can be certain of is that they, along with 20,000 other Black men, contributed to one of the most significant developments in military history, the desegregation of the Marine Corps.
After returning to civilian life and despite racial barriers, Joe continued to be an example of Black excellence. His career spanned more than five decades as a virtuoso trumpeter of historical significance. Among his many accomplishments, he was the first African American to integrate Broadway show bands, lead a pit band brass section on Broadway, hold a principal chair in a Broadway show orchestra, and join a network studio orchestra (ABC-TV, New York City). He was a founding member of and principal trumpet with the Symphony of the New World, the first racially integrated orchestra in the United States. He also worked, in concert and in the studio, with many singers including Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Marilyn Monroe, and Harry Belafonte and he played in the orchestra on Louis Armstrong’s 1967 iconic recording “What a Wonderful World”.
Joe Wilder entered eternal rest on May 9, 2014, before being awarded his replica Congressional Gold Medal. My search then began to find the Wilder family. My first point of contact was Mikael Elsila, the communications director at the NYC musicians’ union (AFM Local 802), where Joe Wilder had been a member for 65 years. Mikael was incredibly helpful and immediately sprang into action, and attempted to establish contact with Ann-Marie Anderson and Gary Kramer from Temple University Press (publisher of “Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of American Music Barriers”), Ed Berger and Barbara Steinberg, daughter of the late American concert violinist, conductor, and civil rights activist, Benjamin Steinberg, who may best be remembered as the founding artistic director and principal conductor of the Symphony of the New World.
As the afternoon progressed, a series of emails flowed back and forth between the group. Everyone seemed to be on a mission. Our first discovery was that Joe’s biographer and dear friend Ed Berger had died in 2017. It was a disappointment but did not deter us. Later that day, Ann-Marie received an email from the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies with the information we were looking for. That evening, I called Elin Wilder-Melcher, and we had the most wonderful conversation about her father, his musical career, and his military service. It is his honorable military service that will be recognized on Monday, July 17, 2023*, at the historic Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Technical Sergeant Joseph B. Wilder will be posthumously presented with the Montford Point Congressional Gold Medal, an honor long overdue. (*Update: see photos and video from the July 17 ceremony below.)
The National Montford Point Marine Association, Inc. is a nonprofit military veterans’ service organization, founded to memorialize the legacy of the first African-Americans to serve in the United States Marine Corps. For more information, please visit www.montfordpointmarines.org.
Mallorie KM Berger, MSc is a researcher and consultant whose grandfather was a Montford Point Marine.
Update: photos and video from the July 17 ceremony where Joe Wilder was posthumously presented with the Montford Point Congressional Gold Medal