Ed Churchill has lived a life of “firsts.”
He was among the 20,000 African-American men who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps at a time when that branch of the service was still resisting integration.
And when he’d done his tour of duty as a Marine drill instructor and, eventually, a company clerk, Churchill returned to his hometown of Louisville and, after a while, began another string of “firsts.”
Churchill served with the U.S. Postal Service for 14 years, then became the first black man to drive an Oertel’s ’92 delivery and sales truck.
“He also became the first black regional manager for the Brown-Forman Corporation,” said his daughter, Phyllis Myers. “And he was Brown-Forman’s first black vice-president.”
Myers spoke about her father prior to Mass on July 1 at St. Augustine Church at 1310 W. Broadway. With her and her father was his caregiver, Gloria Downing. And with all three of them was a replica of the Congressional Gold Medal that Churchill and 345 other former Marines had been presented the previous week in Washington, D.C.
The medals were presented by Congress during a special celebration June 28 — which included a parade — that recognized the service of the African-American Marines.
Now age 86, Churchill says that some of the details of his journey into the Marine Corps all those years ago are difficult to recall. But they are certainly significant enough for the rest of the country to remember — that’s why Congress decided to award the men who were part of the Marine Corps’ first African-American unit in 1942 with the highest honor that legislative branch of government can bestow.
Though Churchill was never asked to go overseas and fight either the Japanese, the Italians or the Germans during World War II, getting through the boot camp created for the African Americans was arduous on its own.
The men who made that effort were called Montford Point Marines — Montford Point was a special little section of Hades carved out of swamp and marsh land adjacent to the regular Marine training base at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
It was a bug- and snake-infested place, and Churchill recalls that the buildings standing there when the men first arrived for training were left over from World War I. As part of their boot camp, the young black men were put to work building their own barracks.
“It was an uncomfortable place,” Churchill recalled during an interview on July 1 at St. Augustine.
As for the honor bestowed in Washington, Churchill noted that the trip and the decoration took him by surprise.
“I don’t remember any awards of that kind being given to black Marines before,” he said. “I do remember there weren’t any black Marine officers; all the officers were white.”
The award in D.C., for something accomplished so many years ago, was “quite an experience,” he added.
“Though I was a DI (drill instructor) for a while, most of my experiences came as a military clerk,” he said. “Back then I couldn’t see making a career of the Marines, so after about three years, I got out.”
When he returned to Louisville, he married and started his family. His wife, Mary Ann, is now deceased, as is a son, Eric. But still around to savor their father’s recent honor are daughters Phyllis Myers and Candus Churchill-Say, and son, Delma. Also accompanying him to last Sunday’s recognition service at St. Augustine was his caregiver, Gloria Downing.
Deacon James Turner noted in his remarks to the congregation about Ed Churchill that the former Marine had helped integrate the service at a time when taking such steps was difficult.
“We want to always remember those who went before us, those who dared to take those first steps,” he said. “And like the Congress did last week, we want to recognize Mr. Ed Churchill for what he did for his country.”
Deacon Turner also noted that another man from Louisville, Clarence Hunt — who is not a St. Augustine parishioner but does belong to the church’s “Keen-Agers” senior club — was honored by Congress for his service as a Montford Point Marine.
By Glenn Rutherford, Record Editor