The first African-American to rise to officer level in association with the United States Marine Corps was from Hamlet.
The fourth son of an AME Zion minister, Frederick Clinton “Fred” Branch was born May 31, 1922. His time in Hamlet was short before his family moved to Mamaroneck, New York. It was there where he graduated high school before returning to North Carolina, enrolling at Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University and joining the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.
Drafted into the Army in May of 1943, Branch reported to Fort Bragg before being selected for transfer into the Marine Corps. It should be noted that, not only had no African-Americans ever actively served in the Corps, but an official ban directly barred them from doing so. However, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had issued an executive order in June of 1941 to prohibit further racial discrimination by any government agency, thus “ostensibly” providing Branch with equal opportunity for assignments and advancement. Reality for him was a bit different.
Branch was moved around during his early years with the Corps. Initially sent to Montford Point outside of Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, for basic training with other African-Americans, Branch assumed a de-facto leadership role with these “Montford Point Marines.” With his self-confidence bolstered by this experience, Branch executed an action that, at that time, was considered audacious for an African-American: he applied for Officer Candidate School. As expected, he was not only denied acceptance, but was transferred to an outlying supply unit in the Pacific. But it was here that his commanding officer took note of his dedication and diligent work ethic, subsequently pushing for and ultimately facilitating Branch’s acceptance into OCS.
Branch’s otherwise successful matriculation into officer training was most likely an ordeal in and of itself. He enrolled in the Navy V-12 program at Purdue University, only to find that he was the lone African-American in a class of 250. While persevering through the “usual” trials and tribulations to which a black man in an otherwise all-white group of the 1940s was subjected, Branch earned commendations and graduated as a Dean’s List honoree. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on Nov. 10 of 1945, just 30 months after his induction into the service.
Branch’s military career spanned 13 years. Post-World War II downsizing of the armed forces led to Branch’s departure from the Corps, but the “police action” in Korea precipitated his return. He was given command of an anti-aircraft training platoon at Camp Pendleton, California, again being discharged in 1952. Returning to the Marine Corps Reserve, Branch progressed to the rank of captain before ultimately retiring in 1955, reportedly due to continued disillusionment and covert discrimination.
Branch embarked upon a second career as a teacher. Having received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Temple University in 1947, he returned to Philadelphia and began teaching science at Dobbins High School, remaining in this position until his retirement in 1988.
Captain Branch was the recipient of numerous honors. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of his commissioning as an officer, he was recognized by a resolution by the U.S. Senate. Two years later, Branch’s pioneering role in the integration of the Corps was recognized by the dedication of a training building at the Marine Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. Another Senate resolution was issued posthumously on April 25, 2005, “to commemorate the life, achievements, and contributions of Frederick C. Branch.” Sponsored by North Carolina Sens. Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr, Resolution 116 was passed only 15 days after Branch’s death on April 10.
Another posthumous honor for Branch was the establishment of the Frederick C. Branch Leadership Scholarship. Created by the Marine Corps Recruiting Command in 2006 for the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, the scholarship is for students attending or having been accepted into any one of 17 historically black colleges and universities that have NROTC programs on campus. Each participating school is allotted two scholarships for four years, one for three years, and one for two years, for a total of 68 annually. Just as was true for Branch in 1945, NROTC graduates are commissioned as second lieutenants in the Marine Corps.
As noted, Branch died on April 10, 2005, seven weeks shy of his 83rd birthday. He was buried with honors at the USMC National Cemetery at Quantico, Virginia.
*NOTE: It was not until 1948 that John E. Rudder would become the first African-American officer in the “regular” USMC.