Former Marine Corps Pvt. Robert Leroy Harding, 89, of Roosevelt, who was both proud of the 2012 Congressional Gold Medal bestowed upon the Montford Point Marines, and humiliated by segregation that made that group a mostly forgotten footnote, died of a lung infection Tuesday at Nassau University Medical Center.
Barred by Marine Corps policies that kept blacks from joining before President Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential directive in 1942, Harding was among some 20,000 black recruits who did boot camp at Montford Point, across a river from white troops at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
It was a humiliation that pained him and other segregation-era black veterans their whole lives, according to his elder daughter, Carolyn Harding-Johnson.
“The Marines hurt my father,” said Harding-Johnson, who lives in Orlando.
Undaunted, Harding placed himself among the ranks of black veterans who, during the 1950s and beyond, helped inject dignity, discipline and determination into an expanding black middle class still wounded by continued racial bias.
“He was a pillar of strength in the community and showed you how to handle yourself with dignity,” said David Myers, 59, of Houston, who credits Harding with mentoring him since he was a teenager. “He was a father figure who would talk to you like a friend.”
Harding, the son of a chauffeur, was born in St. Louis on March 6, 1929, just before the Great Depression .
After graduating from a Kansas City high school in 1946, he enlisted in the Marines at age 17 and encountered America’s segregation policies.
Harding was shocked when the train bearing him to boot camp stopped in Atlanta, and he was ordered to move to the train’s “colored” section. He was further humiliated when, upon his arrival at Camp Lejeune, black recruits were herded to second-class Montford Point.
“I realized right away this was a cruel environment,” Harding wrote for a presentation he made a few years ago.
Harding was honorably discharged as a private in 1947, amid the military’s postwar downsizing. But he enlisted in the newly formed Air Force the next year.
He was stationed at Mitchel Field when he met Della Ebron while walking in Hempstead. They married in 1954.
He was frequently stationed overseas, including in England, where the first two of their four children were born.
After retiring as an Air Force master sergeant in 1968, he bought a home in Roosevelt.
There, his reputation as a youth mentor grew among a generation of young people drawn to his quarter-acre backyard, which featured a basketball court and frequent gatherings for Memphis-style barbecue, music and games of bid whist and dominoes.
In 2005, to help him cope with a neurological condition that eventually left him unable to speak, his family began producing a catchy neo-soul and gospel-house internet radio show called Boochie’s Basement.
Harding did the sound engineering and wrote chat-room responses to comments that came from as far away as Fiji.
In 2012, President Barack Obama collectively presented the Montford Point Marines with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of their contribution to history.
“We never believed it would be the outcome ... of that time in our lives,” Harding wrote in response. “I am honored to receive it on behalf of my platoon and all the Marines who did not live to receive their own.”
In addition to his daughter Caroline, he is survived by a son, Robert Harding Jr., of Roosevelt, and daughter Kim Davis, of Merrick. His son Richard died in 1991, and his wife died in 2015.
Services are at 11 a.m. Monday at Union Baptist Church in Hempstead. He will be cremated.