The First Black Marines Are At Risk Of Losing Their Chicago Veterans Center | WBEZ
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The Montford Point Marines Are At Risk Of Losing Their Chicago Veterans Center

Stanley Porter walked into the Montford Point Marines Association on Chicago’s South Side last week and received friendly ribbing from his fellow veterans. The veterans center has been a long-time fixture in the community, but because of financial troubles, it’s at risk of shutting down.

After falling behind on years of property tax payments, the association is currently hoping and waiting for a reprieve from the Illinois Department of Revenue. After an extension granted on Wednesday, they now have until May to pay their overdue taxes or risk losing the property.

Porter recently gathered with some of the members of the Montford Point Marines Association Chicago Chapter to reflect on their service.

At 97, Porter uses a cane but his memory remains sharp. He remembered joining the U.S. Marine Corps following a presidential directive in 1942 which allowed African-American men to join the service.

Porter said he joined the Marines “to get the recognition as a full American, expand the American dream to what it’s supposed to do. We carried all those inspirations in ourselves,” Porter said.

'A sense of belonging'

During World War II, African-American men were first trained in North Carolina at Montford Point, a segregated part of Camp Lejeune. About 20,000 black Marines received training there between 1942 to 1949, before desegregation of the armed forces.

Porter said they were treated poorly. At first, they were told they were only good enough for low-skill jobs like shining shoes and serving meals.

He remembered the day a white general addressed his camp.

"When I came into this camp and saw you people wearing our globe and anchor, I knew there was a war on," Porter recalled the general saying. "What could be more insulting?"

Sitting in a wheelchair, 93-year-old Edwin Fizer sipped on some brandy to keep warm. He joined the Marines when he was 16. Like Porter, he remembered how the white leadership made life harder for them. If training called for a 10 mile run, he said the black Marines were ordered to run 20.

“The more they increased their toughness, the more we decided that wasn’t going to turn us around,” Fizer said.

For decades, the Montford Point Marines got little recognition. It wasn’t until 2012 when the men received the Congressional Gold Medal. James Reynolds, 91-years-old, said he was so overjoyed, he cried all the way to the ceremony.

“It brings me to tears when I really think about so many of us that never got to see this. They actually presented a medal to 400 of us, which they called the original Montford Pointers,” he said.

Porter, Fizer, and Reynolds are among the last of the original Montford Pointers still living. They want to make sure the history lives on at the veteran center on Chicago’s South Side.

It first opened in the 1970s, and it’s since been a fixture in the community — giving out scholarships, school supplies and food to needy residents. It’s also a safe haven for veterans of all generations.

“They feel a sense of belonging. They feel that they can tell their stories, and we understand,” said Sharon Stokes-Parry, president of the Chicago Chapter of the Montford Point Marines. “We do understand what our young military people are going through. We understand the PTSD. We understand the nightmare.”

Stokes-Parry credited the Montford Point Marines for paving the way for her own career in the Marines, and she made it her mission to keep the center going.

'As bad as a payday loan'

A darkened banquet hall collects dust in the back of the building. It’s been closed off for the past eight years because of roof damage. But in its heyday, Stokes-Parry said people came from all over the South Side.

“They’ll tell you that they remember ‘oh, I got married there. Oh, I retired there. Oh we had our anniversary party there. Oh we did our repass there,’” she said. “And at prices where families are in crisis, we’ve been able to open our doors and assist.”

Stokes-Parry said the rentals allowed the center to generate income, but because of high repair costs, they haven’t been able to fix it. They also lost out on membership dues. At the peak they had about 150 members. Now, they’re down to about a third of that. That led to the organization falling tens of thousands of dollars behind on property tax payments.

In 2014, Cook County sold the Marine organization’s delinquent property taxes in a tax sale, where a buyer can purchase overdue taxes and place a lien on a property. The organization now faces a 36 percent interest rate on top of what they owe.

“It’s bad as a payday loan. So even if an individual is allowed to purchase your taxes, why is the repayment value at 36 percent a year? It’s ridiculous,” Stokes-Parry said.

In November, she set up a GoFundMe page in hopes of raising $200,000 for repairs and tax payments. It’s only raised $470 as of Dec. 12. In a last ditch effort, the group applied for a property tax exemption as a charitable organization.

They’re waiting for the Illinois Department of Revenue to decide if they qualify for the exemption. That decision could come down this month.

Meanwhile, the organization had a deadline of December 12 to redeem their overdue taxes or risk losing the property. But just days before the deadline, they got a little reprieve. The real estate company that bought their taxes gave them an extension to May 30.

If the tax exemption is approved, it could cancel terms of the tax sale, and the group could potentially receive reimbursement for previous years.

Stokes-Parry said if the exemption doesn’t come through, it’s likely the veterans center will close. She said it would be devastating not to have a physical building to honor the men who paved the way for her.

“They were the first African Americans to serve on the Marine Corps, and they were destined to fail. Everything was put in front of them to fail, but they surprised the world and they succeeded,” she said.

She hopes they can succeed again.

Susie An is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter at @soosieon.

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