Roscoe L. Brown comes from humble roots, born on his family’s Texas farm, where he picked cotton as a boy and hunted for food.
When he was old enough, he followed in his father’s footsteps and defended the country.
On Sunday, Brown belatedly received recognition of the highest order, the Congressional Gold Medal for his service as a Montford Point Marine.
The shimmering medal stands in stark contrast to a bleak chapter in American history when the military was segregated. Brown and thousands of other African-Americans who joined the Marine Corps after discriminatory practices for that branch were eliminated in 1941 were sent to Camp Montford Point, N.C., for training during World War II. Their units were still segregated, however.
Many got the chance to prove themselves in battle; others, like Brown, did not. More than six decades later, Congress and President Obama approved legislation awarding Montford Point Marines the medal.
“I feel honored by this,” Brown said in a phone interview before the ceremony.
He’s in good company. Previous recipients of the Gold Medal include George Washington; civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King; Pope John Paul II; and the Tuskegee Airmen, another group of African-Americans who proved their aerial mettle in World War II.
Brown’s journey to the Congressional Gold Medal began when he was asked what branch of the military he wanted to serve in at the old Post Office in downtown Buffalo. He had moved to Buffalo in 1944.
“I said the Marines, because I knew the Marines were always the first into battle, and I wanted to be with them,” the 85-year-old Brown recalled.
The Marines, though, were slow to send blacks into combat.
“But after so many other Marines were killed in the Pacific Theater at places like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, they were glad to have the black Marines,” Brown said.
A hunter since childhood and a pretty good shot, Brown said he hoped he would get a chance to fight the Japanese.
It was not to be.
When fellow Marines at Camp Montford Point were sent to the Pacific Theater, Brown remained behind, working at a desk, maintaining personnel records.
He says he took it in stride.
“It was meaningful work. You had to have somebody keep the records. When somebody in battle killed the enemy, I made sure it was on their records,” Brown said.
Often when black Marines returned to Montford Point, Brown said, he interviewed them as he prepared their discharge papers. The stories they shared filled him with pride.
“Some of the black Marines worked on the ships loading ammunition. But there were Marines who fought, and I remember hearing stories of how they killed a lot of the enemy. These Marines were treated equally during battle. It didn’t matter what color your skin was, but then when they came back home, they couldn’t get served a cup of coffee because they were black, and that’s a hell of a thing.”
While in uniform, Brown also experienced racism; he was escorted out of a restaurant when he entered through the wrong door. But he never lost his sense of patriotism. He had been raised by a veteran.
“My father served in the Army during World War I as a corporal. He’d been sent to New York with his outfit, and they were getting ready to go overseas when the war ended.”
In 1949, three years after Brown was honorably discharged, the Marines deactivated Camp Montford Point, and Leathernecks of all races began training and working side by side.
In 2011, Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, was among members of Congress to sponsor the legislation conferring the Congressional Gold Medal to the Montford Point Marines. Last year, a special awards ceremony for more than 400 of the Marines was held in Washington, D.C., but Brown had not been notified.
To make up for the oversight, a special presentation was held Sunday with Higgins, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and members of the Marine Corps at Bethesda World Harvest International Church on Main Street, near East Utica Street, where Brown serves as a deacon.
“Today we honor Roscoe Brown, a member of the Montford Point Marines, an elite team of men who bravely signed up to fight abroad for our nation’s freedom even while they were being denied equal rights here at home,” Higgins said in his prepared remarks. “We thank you for your courage, trailblazing determination and selfless service.”
Poloncarz said it was a privilege to publicly thank Brown “for his service to our country.”
In reflecting on his long life, Brown said he has witnessed many changes, from improved treatment of those of color serving in military to the civilian workplace.
“I moved up to Buffalo in 1944 from Texas. My sister and her husband had moved here, and I followed them. I finished high school with a degree in welding. That’s where the money was,” he said.
After the war, Brown found work at Bethlehem Steel in Lackawanna.
“I worked there 33 years and retired as a foreman in 1982.”
He then purchased his own business, a laundromat at the corner of North Fillmore and Dewey avenues, which he operated until 2005. Brown also raised six children, who have since moved from the area.
At his side Sunday was his wife, the former Elizabeth LeLand.
“This is wonderful. This is really a big deal,” she said of the award.
Roscoe l. Brown, 85
Hometown: Kendleton, Texas
Branch: Marine Corps
Rank: Private 1st class
War zone: World War II
Years of service: 1945-46
Most prominent honors: Congressional Gold Medal
Specialty: Personnel clerk