Corporal Sandy Kelly posthumously awarded Congressional Gold Medal

Sandy Kelly was born in 1910 in Carthage. In 1944, in the midst of World War II, Kelly was drafted as one of the first Black men in the U.S. Marine Corps and was a proud member of what was known as the Montford Point Marines — a segregated training area for Black Marines. His commitment and dedication resulted in his promotion to corporal in less than two years. He received an honorable discharge on Sept. 20, 1945.

Being a marine has never been easy, but in the Jim Crow era, it was particularly difficult, and Black Marines faced opposition even from the top. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Major General Thomas Holcomb, was opposed to the establishment of the Montford Point Marines. He thought it was a disgrace to the Corps, and in 1942 said, “If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes I would rather the whites.”

Nonetheless, President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1941, signed Executive Order #8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry and in government, thus opening all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces to African Americans. It was years before the Montford Marines finally gained the recognition they deserved, but those efforts finally led to President Obama approving the Congressional Gold Medal for them in 2011. However, only a small amount received them, as so few were still living.

On Saturday, March 30, Corporal Sandy Kelly was honored for his service posthumously at the Mount Zion AME Zion Church in Carthage. Kelly was a master brick mason, and years before, he helped in the construction of the church, building the frames for its foundation. He was a member of the church for more than 40 years. The gathering at the award ceremony attracted many local people, including Moore County Commissioner Jim Von Canon, as well as former Marines from all over the state. 

Carol Womack offered a moving a cappella rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner and another song. The Reverend Edward Hill, the pastor of the Mount Zion AME Zion Church, offered the opening prayer and benediction.

Corporal Kelly posthumously awarded Congressional Gold Medal

Ellery C. Harris received the nation’s highest civilian award on behalf of her father’s service at a ceremony in Carthage.

Speakers included Kelly’s daughter, Ellery C. Harris. She remembered her father as a quiet and gentle man of few words and spoke of the day when the family waited along Highway 15-501 for the Carolina Trailways bus to take him to training camp. “There was a strange silence,” she said, remembering that January day her father left for the war. “By the time the bus arrived, we were all in tears.” 

Reflections were offered by nieces Alice Kincy, Georgia Davis, Sammie K. Kerr and Cynthia McQuitter, who spoke with great affection about their “Uncle Sandy.” Robert Whitaker called Corporal Kelly “a man of wisdom” and “a community pillar.” He was also said that Mr. Kelly “endeared himself generously, supported and served in organizations, and was a benefit to all who knew him.”

Other speakers included Gunnery Sgt. Amy Williamson, USMC Ret, who serves as the president of the National Montford Point Marines Association, Chapter 38. She said, “While our nation was at war, more than 20,000 African American men enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. It was noted that Corporal Kelly received no VA benefits following his service. 

Warm memories and love for Corporal Kelly were expressed by other members of his family, who said that he rarely spoke of his service in the Marines. Following the presentation of the replica of the Congressional Gold Medal, refreshments were offered in the fellowship hall, which included a large, elaborate cake with Corporal Kelly’s picture in icing. 

~Written by Sandhills Sentinel reporter Steve Biddle.

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