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A Milwaukee Man Receives Congressional Gold Medal for Being One of the First Black Marines

A Milwaukee Man Receives Congressional Gold Medal for Being One of the First Black Marines

We cannot stress enough the importance of giving people their roses while they are still here. Seventy one years later, Staff Sergeant William Coffer Junior is finally getting his.

Coffer completed his training in 1948 at Montford Point Camp, making him one of the first African Americans to join the United States Marine Corps. He then served two years in Korea and rose to the rank of staff sergeant. 

Following his service with the Marines, he went on to receive his bachelor’s degree from Marquette University and an associate degree from Milwaukee Area Technical College. He married his wife Yvonne in 1957 and in 1971 he became the manager at the Milwaukee Housing Authority. 

Coffer’s service in the Marine Corps was not without its fair share of challenges. For starters, he joined at a time when the entire nation, Marines included, was divided racially. Sharon Stokes-Parry, the president of the Chicago chapter of the Montford Point Marine Association, said that all 20,000 African American Marines who were recruited between 1942 and 1949 trained separately at Montford Point Camp, a segregated facility in North Carolina. Their motto at Montford Point, “we fight for the right to fight.” “They served at a time, in the military, where African Americans were often left to doing the jobs of cooks and stewards," Stokes-Parry said. "We had one of our generals say that he would rather have 5,000 white Marines than 20,000 African Americans."

In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to 365 Marine veterans from Montford Point. The medal is the “highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievement and contributions." Since then, the Montford Point Marine Association has been looking for all of the men who weren’t able to attend the initial ceremony. 

Photo courtesy of Staff Sergeant William Coffer Junior

At 89 years old, and despite all he’s seen and been through, Coffer is still serving. He teaches Sunday school, Bible study and serves as the treasurer at the Greater Galilee Missionary Baptist Church.  

Stokes-Parry encourages anyone who knows or knew a Montford Point Marine to contact the association. "It's not just African American History, it's not just military history," she said. "This is the history of America."

Photo courtesy of Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel