Marvin E. Gilmore Jr. has owned a bank, helped revive parts of Roxbury, owns a Cambridge nightspot, and is considered one of the most stylish people in greater Boston, even at 86 years old.
Today, however, Gilmore was honored for what he did as a teenager – dropped out of school, enlisted in the Army, stormed ashore onto Normandy's beaches on June 6, 1944, even though as an African-American he faced ruthless racism from fellow soldiers.
At a State House ceremony today, Gilmore was awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest civilian award, for his role in liberating France and for his refusal to let discrimination hold him back while in the Army and at home.
He is the first African-American in New England to be awarded the Legion of Honor.
"Marvin Gilmore's heroic service in Word War II alone is enough to recommend him for the Legion of Honor,'' said Christophe Guilhou, consul general of France as he prepared to honor Gilmore. "But his bravery and dedication in the face of discrimination make Marvin a true hero.''
On D-Day, when Allied forces invaded France, Gilmore was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit that provided cover for American soldiers landing on Utah and Omaha beaches. Gilmore, who had hoped to serve in a band but ended up in a combat unit, extended his time in Europe by attending the Scottish Academy of Music in Glasgow.
Back in the United States, Gilmore co-founded the Unity Bank in Roxbury, the first black-owned commercial bank in Boston and played key roles in the redevelopment of the Southwest Corridor, the Newmarket industrial district, and the CrossTown industrial park near the Boston Medical Center in Roxbury.
Since 1973, he has been president of the Community Development Corporation of Boston. In 2007, The Boston Globe picked Gilmore as one of Boston's most stylish people.
At the State House when Guilhou pinned the Legion of Honor onto Gilmore's lapel, family, friends, and supporters burst into sustained applause.
"I take this honor for all my fellow veterans who have passed away the ones that fought with me on Normandy beach,'' he said. "If you live in America, if you live in France, you just don't know what war was like. I went through hell.''
He added that France needed to be liberated and America protected. "And that has happened,'' he said. "We are free. Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.''
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