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A Trailblazer's Farewell

Mourners Gather at Quantico to Honor Marines' First Black Officer

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page B01

Most were there out of plain love, some out of duty and many others, strangers, came to the rolling green lawn of Quantico National Cemetery on a warm spring day to thank a man they never knew.

Here was Lance Cpl. Sha'ahn Williams, 27, who hadn't put on her dress uniform in a while but did so yesterday for Capt. Frederick C. Branch, the first African American officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. She came early. She fidgeted with her ribbons -- "I'm always self-conscious about my ribbons," she said -- which were barely crooked. She wanted to look perfect. She stood in the sun and waited for his funeral procession to arrive, looking out over the grass.

Marines carry the coffin of Capt. Frederick C. Branch during his burial ceremony at Quantico National Cemetery. (Ana Pimsler -- Potomac News Via AP)

"I'm from Philadelphia, and I didn't even know about him until recently," she said, noting that Branch was from Philadelphia, too. "I know it's cliche, but it's true that people like me couldn't get in if it weren't for him," said Williams, who is black.

Here came Capt. Toriono Davis, 31, tall and sharp in his dress whites and shiny patent leather shoes. His job was to present the flag to the grandnephew of the man whose photo, he said, quite simply changed his life.

"I remember seeing a picture of his wife pinning on the bars," he said, recalling the day in a classroom at Parris Island, S.C.

Davis, who is black, was probably still a teenager then -- he enlisted at 17 -- and seeing a photo of a black man being commissioned an officer made him think he could do it, too. He trained from 1992 to 1996 and said that in four years, he saw exactly two black officers.

"If there were more, I missed them," Davis said. "I don't think I'd have even thought of becoming an officer had I not seen that picture. You see it, then you start daydreaming, and you think, 'Why not me?' "

About 2 p.m., Davis and Williams headed down the green hill toward the pavilion for the service, followed by Sgt. Michael Lawson, 37, who had received an e-mail about the funeral, "jumped up, got my outfits ready and made the decision to attend." Lawson, who is white, said he was there to support a brother.

The U.S. Marine Band, "the President's Own," was there at the bottom of the hill, a line of red and white and shiny brass, as well as a rifle platoon and Navy chaplain Ronnie C. King, who said of Branch, "Because of him, I am."

The funeral procession, a silver-colored hearse and lines of cars, curved through the trees, and brothers, nieces, nephews and dozens of relatives got out, greeted with white-gloved salutes.

"Let my prayer come before the Lord," King began, leading the flag-draped coffin. "I am but a man who has no strength."

People crowded around the pavilion. There were more salutes for Branch, who died April 10 at 82. A man removed his straw hat, and a woman put her hand over her heart.

Some people held the program from an earlier service in Philadelphia, in which a short obituary appeared next to photos of Branch.

"Despite his high score on the required examination," the obituary read, describing the hurdles Branch faced on his way to becoming an officer, "his white officers refused to recommend him."

According to the obituary, in an interview in 1995, Branch said: "They told me to shut that blankety-blank stuff up about being an officer. 'You ain't going to be no officer.' "

But he did become an officer, in November 1945, after impressing a colonel who wrote a recommendation. He served in the Korean War and eventually rose to the rank of captain but left the military in 1955, somewhat disappointed that his opportunities for advancement seemed limited.

Branch went on to develop the science program at Murrell Dobbins High School in Philadelphia, where he taught for 35 years and was department chairman. He and his wife, Camilla "Peggy" Branch, were married for 55 years. She died in 2000 and is buried at Quantico. They had no children.

Yesterday, their niece, Cathleen Cooper of Chicago, said that despite the obstacles, her uncle "made it look easy."

The Marine honor guard fired rifles, a bugle played taps, the flag was folded and Davis handed the colors to Alex Cooper, 22, Branch's grandnephew and godson.

As he did, Davis leaned in close to Cooper and whispered a few words.

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