DAVID N. DINKINS
July 21st, 2005
Private David Dinkins was born in Trenton, New Jersey, where he finished high school. He joined the Corps in 1945, and after stateside duty was discharged the following year. He completed a degree in mathematics at Howard University in 1950, a law degree from the Brooklyn School of Law in 1956, and practiced law in New York City until 1975. Politically active, he became president of the New York City Board of Elections in 1975 and in 1989 was elected mayor of New York City. Defeated by Rudy Giuliani in a 1993 bid for re-election, Dinkins serves as a professor of public affairs at Columbia University and on the boards of numerous organizations. He remains active in politics and continues to reside in New York City.
INTERVIEWER: State your full name and spell it for us, please.
DAVID N. DINKINS: Okay, I'm David N. Dinkins, D-I-N-K-I-N-S.
INTERVIEWER: And today's date?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Uh, I guess today's the 21st, uh, July 21st, 2005.
INTERVIEWER: Yes sir. Sir, we're going to go ahead and get started, and what I'd like you to do is tell us a little bit about your background before you joined the Marines. Where you were from, talk a little bit about your family and your education.
DAVID N. DINKINS: Okay. Uh, I was born, uh, July 10th, 1927. Uh, as you, you can see, uh, I've just turned 78. I was born in Trenton, New Jersey. And when I was six or seven years old my mother and father separated, my mother came to New York City, uh, where she lived with, uh, her mother, my grandmother. And they were domestics, they cooked and cleaned for folks for a dollar a day.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) For these were The Depression years. So we lived in Harlem, as I love to tell people we moved a lot. We moved when the rent was due. It seemed like a good time to move. Uh, but I was, uh, a happy child. I never, never went to bed hungry, and my clothes were clean, because my mother and grandmother scrubbed them, and didn't have holes 'cause they sewed them up.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) I had toys. When the little White children got through with their toys, they brought their toys home. So I did alright. And then I went to Trenton about Junior High School, lived with my father. And I was there in Trenton up through High School, entered the service, and, uh, and College. Then I came back to New York where I've been ever since.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And, um, I got involved in government and politics. And, uh, eventually became the Mayor of New York City in, um, elected in '89, served for one term, four years, commencing, um, January first, 1990.
INTERVIEWER: A little bit about your education, sir.
DAVID N. DINKINS: Well I, uh, I went to Howard University, um, on the GI Bill. Uh, I didn't, really didn't want to go to College. I was fresh out of the Marine Corps, and I had more money than I'd ever had at one time in life. I don't know, two or three hundred dollars I guess. And I wanted to party. But my parents thought I should go to College. They were insistent.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) Particularly my stepmother, my father had remarried by then. And she had gone to Howard University. And so when I complained that I couldn't get into Howard this late because it was then August, and school started in September, and, but she was a graduate of Howard and knew the person in charge of Veteran's Affairs.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) So I did get into Howard. And for, uh, I guess a year and a half, uh, at least the motto was don't let your education interfere with your recreation. Uh, but there came a time when I recognized that I had to have a concentration in some area in order to graduate ultimately, and I had more mathematics courses than anything else, so I became a mathematics major.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) Indeed, I graduated with Honors in math, and I won a fellowship to Rutgers University, where I went for one semester. And, uh, one day after, uh, working all night on a problem, and I went to class the next day, and I went to the smartest person in, in the class who was, was a woman, and, uh, I said did you get the answer to number two?
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) She said, yeah, pi over three. I said, that's what I got. And as sort of an afterthought I asked her, well, how long did it take you? She said, about 20 minutes. Then I knew that that was not for me. So I decided to go to Law School. You don't need to be too smart to be a lawyer. So, uh, I, uh, in, um, 1953, uh, I started Law School.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) I got married in August of '53 and started Law School, Brooklyn Law School, uh, in, uh, September of '53. Uh, I tell people I went to Brooklyn Law School because I was a Dodger fan. But the fact is, Brooklyn was one of the few schools that would permit you to work and go to school. So I worked fulltime at night, and went to Law School fulltime during the day.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. Um, tell me, sir, uh, what, what 'caused you go join the Marine Corps? What, why did you join?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Well therein really is the, I suppose the most contribution I can make to this effort which I'm very pleased to see you undertaking. Uh, I'm 17 years old, I'm a senior in High School. Uh, the draft is on, it's 1945. And I know that, uh, upon registering for the draft I'm, I'm certainly going to be drafted because in those days everybody went to war. Uh, this was not Vietnam, uh, nobody went to Canada.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) Everybody, with the rare exceptions of those persons who were 4F, had some disability, or perhaps were in some essential occupation. Everybody else went. So you, you never gave a thought to not going. And, uh, and so I said well the, and people were dying that you knew. So-and-so's big brother who lived across the street or around the corner.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And I figured a way to stay alive is to be well trained. Well, and the way to be well trained is to be a Marine. And so I tried to enlist in the Marine Corps. Well, the idea is you have to enlist before you get drafted, because once you're drafted, they tell you where you're going. You say you want Navy, they give you Army.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) You say you want Army, they give you Navy. Nobody gets what they wish. So, uh, uh, I set out to enlist. Well in 1945 there were no, uh, recruitment offices in Trenton, New Jersey, where I then lived. So in, in succession, not necessarily in this order, but I went to, to Camden, to Philadelphia, to Jersey City, to Newark, to New York.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) I went, actually went to all those places attempting to enlist. I was either told that we have our quota of Negro Marines, or you have to go to the state of your residence. So I pestered them in Philadelphia so long and so much that they finally, uh, let me fill out the papers. And I took the physical, and they said you have high blood pressure.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) Now, at that time I weighed about 128 pounds soaking wet. And so I, I didn't believe it. And so I stopped at a doctor's office in Philadelphia, blood pressure normal. I went home to the family physician who had been an Army surgeon, blood pressure normal. So I go back to Philadelphia, they take my pressure on my left arm, right arm, lying down, standing up, always high.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) But I was so persistent that they wrote a letter to my draft board, and gave me a copy. It said, if this man passes the physical and requests the Marine Corps, put him in the Marine Corps. And, uh, so on the 10th of July, 1945, I turned 18, I registered for the draft, and requested immediate induction. And I think it was the 18th, pretty sure it was the 18th of July, uh, I was called.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And I, you know, never came back home. I just went in, took my toothbrush and kept on going. And, uh, and I was so proud that I was going to be in the Marine Corps, that I wrote cards, postcards, to everybody I knew. And in the postcards I outlined the itinerary. We left from Jersey City, and we, we got a train and went to Washington D.C., and then we got on a bus or whatever.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) I, I laid out the whole thing. Fortunately, because that caused me to remember it, because when we got to Washington, there were a group of about maybe 30 of us. One other fellow who was Black, who was 19, so they gave him the orders for the two of us. And all the rest of the fellows were White. They were on route to Parris Island, and this Black fellow and I were going to Camp Lejeune.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) Well he missed the train out of Washington, and he's got my orders. But I remembered the itinerary from writing it so much. So I got on the train, and when the conductor came through asking for tickets, I just point to the other, I said I'm with him, I'm with them. And that worked fine 'til I had to get off the train. Now I had to buy a bus ticket, and it was my first experience with Jim Crow's Southern United States.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And I stepped up and they said, well you go around the back, boy. And that was how my introduction to, uh, the south. I don't remember where I was, uh, whether it was, I don't know what state we were in. But, anyway, ultimately I get to, uh, to Jacksonville, and I, I proceeded to get the bus into the camp. And I got off the bus in Camp Lejeune, and a great big sergeant said, where are your orders? And I launch into this explanation of why I don't have any orders. And he hit me and I bounced. That was my introduction to the United States Marine Corps. (TECHNICAL)
INTERVIEWER: Uh, Mayor Dinkins, did you, uh, did you know that the, the Marines were accepting Blacks? I mean, did you know anything about that, uh, when you decided to join the Marine Corps?
DAVID N. DINKINS: (OVERLAPPING) Yeah, yeah, I had a, I had a friend, uh, Everett Mills, who ultimately ended up in the Navy, but he had a brother who was in the Marine Corps. And, and so I knew there was such a thing as Blacks in the Marine Corps. I didn't really fully appreciate, until I started out to enlist, that there had been no Blacks in the Marine Corps prior to '42.
INTERVIEWER: Uh, did you, uh, at camp, when you started the, the training process, reported aboard, uh, did you encounter any racism there?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Yeah. (LAUGH)
INTERVIEWER: (OVERLAPPING) On base?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Yeah.
INTERVIEWER: Could you talk to us about that?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Yeah, I did. In fact, uh, you know how when one sometimes tells a story so often that, that you begin to wonder, well, well how much of it is true, and so how much you have embellished it over time. So I have to confess, I'm not really a thousand percent sure. But all the DIs, uh, well most of the DIs were Black, and I had a Black DI. But the Gunnery Sergeants were all White. And I tell stories about how they'd say, alright, nigger, fall in. Until we got ammunition. Then the attitude changed markedly.
INTERVIEWER: The spirit of, of the troops, uh, your, your fellow trainees, uh, what was that like? Were they spirited?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Yeah, well, well there was a, there was pride in, in, in, in being a Marine. Um, and, uh, they used to make us do the manual arms with locker boxes, with a, I'm sure that you, you and others have gone through the same thing. They used to hang clothes up wet and told you to run around them 'til they dry. Um, we, we, one, among the things we were taught is, if you're being drilled you respond to the orders of the, of the, the, the Commander who's drilling you.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) Who could be a corporal, could be a lieutenant. And so if a general comes by, says ten hut, you keep, march right over his behind. And, and in that same way, they would march you sometimes into water. Um, we never lost anybody in my time, but thereafter I, I read tragically of Marines who died, uh, drowned, marched into rivers.
INTERVIEWER: When you, when you went to the camp, got off the bus, and you saw Camp, uh, Montford Point, what, what, what did you see, first of all?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Well I don't know, it, it's been so long. Keep in mind, (LAUGH) this is 1945. It's, it's a, you know, it's better than 50 years ago. But the, the recollection I have is of tents. Uh, and, and that's all I remember. And, um, but I had, I had great, great pride in being there. But I have to tell you this, uh, it's the first time I've seen grown men cry.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) Because, uh, it was tough, it was rough. And because I was so damn little, the DI was going to make you (STAMMERS) toe the line, and not let you feel sorry for yourself because you're little. And, uh, and actually because I was little, I think I'm bad. And I'm going to do everything. And so I, I got, um, I got, uh, fair treatment in that sense from the DI. Uh, sad to say, I can't remember his name. Uh, I can see him, but I can't remember his name. But, uh, it was, uh, the most rewarding experience that I'd had, certainly up to that point.
INTERVIEWER: When you, uh, did you, when you went out on liberty, uh, what, what was that like?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Well, we, we, they used to give 62 hours passes, not 72, 62. So when you got 62, we tried to come home. Tried to come to, as far north as, as, uh, Trenton or New York. And on, on other occasions we had less time, we went to Wilson, Wilmington, Kinston, places like that. And, um, you know, it was, uh, you were just happy to get out of camp, and went out and (STAMMERS) didn't know how to drink, but you were drinking a little bit.
INTERVIEWER: Did you encounter any racism when you were out on liberty?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, one thing that, that, that sticks in my mind, uh, was that the prisoners of war, uh, Italian and German prisoners of war, some of them were guarded by Black soldiers. And they were treated better than, uh, those people who were protecting our country, soldiers and Marines. That I remember.
INTERVIEWER: Did, you did you see that in Jacksonville, or perhaps when you were traveling across country?
DAVID N. DINKINS: I, I, I think I saw it more probably traveling. Uh, you sort of passed through Jacksonville, it's not a place you went.
INTERVIEWER: When you, when you finished your training, uh, at Montford Point, where did you go? Where were you assigned?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Well, uh, (LAUGH) when I got out of boot camp, uh, most of the fellows, some of the fellows, uh, were, were sent to, to, uh, Pearl Harbor for MP duty. And I said, that would be terrific. But, uh, because I was 18, they, they did not send me, they were sending older fellows. Older meaning 19. And, uh, so, uh, I was in, uh, uh, doing this duty where you go out into the boondocks and spray DDT.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And, uh, that's the lousiest job you, you ever want. And, uh, I said, well I'm smarter than this. See I had a, a, a, a high school education. Many of the men in, in my Company, uh, were from Arkansas, and a whole lot of them had not finished High School. Some of them were even under 18, and put their ages up in order to get a draft card, which said they were 18 if you have a draft card, and, to get a job.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And then they got drafted. And once you get in, it's hell getting out. So, uh, I figure, well I'm smarter than some of these guys. And, uh, when I filled out whatever form it is you fill out, uh, to, your, your experience and whatnot, and what you can do, I had worked in a garage. Um, I really was, uh, washing trucks and changing oil and tires and all, but I filled it out and made it sound like I was damn near a mechanic.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And, anyway, I got, ultimately I got transferred to Motor Transport. And, uh, and that was a pretty good job, except that in Motor Transport, they assign people to, uh, to jobs. You'd have a vehicle, a truck or a car, and you had a specific function. And if you didn't have a specific function, you sat there and then they, you would be called upon to go here or go there, pick this up or pick these people up.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And any time a convoy went anywhere, it always left at four AM. You know, it would be dark. And so I wanted to get a steady gig. And so I kept hounding the, the CO, who was a Warrant Officer. And so finally he said, alright, I'll give you a job. And he put me in charge of the ambulance. I, and a fellow named Willie Twiggs, from Georgia. And our job was to drive the ambulance.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And the catch to it was, you're on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But there were two of us. So Willie and I would divide up the time, and so that worked out fine. And, uh, the, uh, corpsmen, the Navy corpsmen, these cats liked to drive the ambulance, turn on the siren. So we, we, we acted like, it was sort of like Huckleberry Finn.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) We said, I'll tell you what, man, we going to let you drive. And we would let them do that in exchange for, uh, fresh, fresh ham and eggs, because we had powdered eggs. And we got fresh, fresh stuff from them because they had better food. So that was a pretty good deal. Uh, and I, uh, I worked at that for a while.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And then, uh, one day I noticed some guys were creased, you know, with a crease down here on the shirt, and a crease down there, and a tie and, and they looked very neat. And I said, well who, who are they? And, it was HNS Company. And so, uh, I don't know how I did it, but anyway, I managed to get transferred to HNS.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And I was a, the assistant file clerk. And the file clerk was a corporal, and, uh, and then one day he got discharged. So the CO would come in, and would, would, would, uh, instead of ordering me, he would almost request for me to get this or get that. Because I was the only one knew where the damn files were. And, uh, and that was pretty good.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And then thereafter, uh, I was, at one point I was the chauffer for the Executive Officer of the Base. It is he who told me that if you want to go to college, don't reenlist. Now I didn't really want to go college, but he, the word was that, that they were discharging people. And those, and they would try and encourage people to reenlist, and those who reenlisted were going to radar school.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) So you got a few hundred dollars and some liberty, and you come back and you go to radar school. So, uh, I never did reenlist. In fact, when I left the Marine Corps, I figured if I didn't learn anything else, I learned don't sign anything, don't volunteer for anything, and, uh, and I had a, an aversion to standing in lines. When people queue up, I hate to do that.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) But it, uh, it's it, it was a, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, though, I have to tell you. And, uh, I can see it like it was yesterday. There was a, there was a fellow from my hometown who, who'd been overseas, and he came back to, to Camp Lejeune, his name was Bill Sapp. He's, he's dead now. Great big cat, he was a big rascal, and he liked me. And he'd seen my playing poker, and he would stand over the game, make sure nobody mistreated me. Uh, yeah, what a time.
INTERVIEWER: Did, did you stay at Montford Point for, for your entire...
DAVID N. DINKINS: Yes.
INTERVIEWER: The whole time?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Yeah, I was never stationed anywhere else.
DAVID N. DINKINS: I, I wanted, I wanted to go to Pearl Harbor. That sounded glamorous to me. MP duty at Pearl Harbor. But they told me I was too young. And, which is a kick in the head because later when I got to Howard University, I wanted to live on campus, but the rent was 17 dollars and 50 cents a month. And they said I was too old because I was a veteran. I was then 19, and I had to live out in Northeast Washington, on Benning Road. They had three, uh, vet dorms. Wake, Guam, and Midway. I lived at Wake Hall where the rent was 30 dollars and 50 cents a month.
INTERVIEWER: Uh, did you, uh, see, were you there when the camp closed?
DAVID N. DINKINS: No.
INTERVIEWER: So you left before the camp closed.
DAVID N. DINKINS: Yeah, I don't know when it closed, but it, it was, it was certainly still functioning when I left.
INTERVIEWER: Uh, what do you think, sir, is the historical significance of the Montford Point Marine?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Well, uh, as I said to you informally earlier, uh, it is in many ways, uh, a, a lesson to the capabilities of, of Black folks as fighters. Uh, uh, I made reference to Tuskegee Airmen, uh, as you know and most people know, that the, they said Black folks weren't smart enough to learn to fly. And then when they learned to fly they said they couldn't go into combat because they would turn in the face of the enemy.
DAVID N. DINKINS: (CONTINUED) And they did so well flying cover for bombers that the pilots, the bomber pilots, asked for them. They never lost a single bomber. And I heard stories from returning Black Marines of how the guys in Ammo Companies, when they hit the beach, and they, other guys were pinned down and running out of ammo...
INTERVIEWER: Would you...
DAVID N. DINKINS: These weren't Blacks, they, they were Marines.
INTERVIEWER: How, can you tell us, how, uh, the Marine Corps experience affected your life?
DAVID N. DINKINS: Well I think it gave me a, a, a confidence that, uh, I could do almost anything. Um, I, uh, it, it toughened you a little, for sure. And, um, and, uh, my, my life has been pretty good. Um, and I, uh, I attribute a lot of it to, uh, the Marine Corps. It's a, I felt it was a privilege.
INTERVIEWER: I have one final question, sir. Uh, your, your service in the Marine Corps, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) piece of history. Uh, your service, uh, Mr. Cunningham, and all of those other Black Marines that endured the Montford Point, uh, experience, uh, in some ways this question probably piggybacks off an earlier one, but I'll just ask it to see if you have some thoughts.
INTERVIEWER: (CONTINUED) Uh, and I just want to know about your feelings now about having been a Montford Point Marine.
DAVID N. DINKINS: Oh, I'm, I'm very proud, uh, having been a, a Montford Point Marine. As a matter of fact, there were no officers in my time. Uh, in fact we tell the story of a guy who got commissioned, a Black, who got commissioned a warrant officer. One day marched in the parade the next day, and discharged the next day. And, uh, so today, uh, people like you, sir, um, and generals in the Marine Corps.
INTERVIEWER: Sir, thank you very much.
DAVID N. DINKINS:No, I thank you.