Any Marine can quickly recite the birth date of the U.S. Marine Corps, 10 Nov. 1775. Recruits and officer candidates memorize this and many other pieces of knowledge like the first female Marine, first Marine aviator, and dozens of other historical figures and events. However, for our Black brothers and sisters, the history seems muddled.

Of course, the record speaks of the Montford Point Marines, created after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to desegregate the armed forces. However, specific events, dates, and names elude the memory of many Marines. After all, Marine Corps curriculum only added the history of Montford Point in 2011.

A timeline created by the U.S. Marine Corps Museum provides the true record: the first Black Marine enlisted almost 170 years before Montford Point, during the revolutionary war. Capt. Miles Pennington recruited Private John “Keto” Martin in April of 1776. The person who enslaved Martin had no idea of his recruitment to the Continental Marines.

Martin served aboard the Continental brig USS Reprisal, participating in a cruise that resulted in the capture of five British merchantmen. He served on the Reprisal until 1777, when the dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships notes that the brig was caught in a storm, destroying it and killing all those aboard but the cook.

Isaac Walker and a man known only as “Orange” followed Martin, enlisting at Tun Tavern in 1776. Capt. Robert Mullan inducted them into his company, which was part of a battalion of Marines raised by Maj. Samuel Nicholas. Mullan’s company crossed the Delaware River with George Washington and fought the British at the Battle of Princeton in 1777, cementing Walker and Orange’s significant role in Marine Corps history.

According to the U.S. Marine Corps Museum, at least 13 of the 2,000 Continental Marines were Black.

In 1796, Secretary of War James McHenry passed an act that banned people of color from serving in the military. (Editor’s noteh; shortages of manpower however made this law hard to enforce, especially in the Navy where blacks comprised 15-20% of the crews by 1812.)  This act remained law until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 allowed people of color to serve in the Army and Navy, but not the Marines.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 8802 in 1941, partially desegregating the armed forces and jumpstarting recruitment. In 1942, the Marines established Montford Point as the training ground for the first Black Marine recruits.