Key West has not forgotten these pioneering soldiers
Few locals know that in the 1940’s, 13 brave African American men travelled from Key West to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to join the first Black Marines Corp in American history. While Jim Crow laws were still in effect, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a decree in 1942 that all men would be allowed to serve in the military regardless of race, color, or creed. Although the Army and Navy had been integrated since the Civil War, the Marines had refused the service of African Americans until the presidential directive.
During training, the men were segregated at Montford Point Camp adjacent to Camp Lejeune. The Montford Marines worked hard to rise in the ranks to become their own drill sergeants and officers fighting against stereotype and racism still prevalent in the south and armed services. They led their Corp with a sense of duty and pride for their country and their fellow African Americans into the battle of World War II. Although, they suffered the humiliation of segregation at home and abroad, they earned the nickname around the world as the “Black Angels”.
Key West’s Kelsey Hannibal remembers his father’s legacy as one of perseverance. Shedrack “Candyman” Hannibal Jr., a descendant of Bahamians, was born and raised on Thomas Street and attended Douglas High School before graduating Florida A&M University.
Hanibal said the marines were soliciting the “best and the brightest” and recruited Shedrack to become one of the first of 20,000 men to train at Montford Point between 1942-1949. He went on to serve two years in the South Pacific during WWII. Sadly later, like most veterans, he suffered the mental ravages of war as well as the contnual racism in the South, Hannibal said.
“Not many of the marines spoke about their experiences after the war. They were isolated in the Corp by the white officers and ridiculed at home for having served. But now, we see what an important time it was, more organizations are trying to preserve their story, their legacy,” said Hannibal, a retired Combat Airborne Engineer who served in Vietnam. Shedrack Hannibal returned to Key West after the war and died in 1979 at his childhood home on Thomas Street. Now, his remaining five children are able to celebrate his sacrifice and be honored in Key West.
In 2015 Commissioner Clayton Lopez and Mayor Craig Cates designated November 17th as Montford Point Marines Day in Key West. Now, Commissioner Lopez has initiated an effort to honor those Key West Veterans with a simply stated granite podium in the Bayview Park Memorial War Garden.
The Montford Marines were a part of significant social change in the United States but at a cost. Their battles at home and abroad were finally honored by President Obama in 2011 when he petitioned Congress and was able to award the last remaining marines and their families the Congressional Gold Medal over 60 years later.