Cicilline, Whitehouse Seek to Honor First Rhode Island Regiment with the Congressional Gold Medal

Feb 9, 2022

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, Congressman David N. Cicilline (RI-01) and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) were joined by Senators Jack Reed (D-RI), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Congressman Jim Langevin (RI-02) in introducing the First Rhode Island Regiment Congressional Gold Medal Act (H.R.6660/S.3607), to posthumously award America’s first integrated military unit with the Congressional Gold Medal. Long overdue, this legislation seeks to recognize the heroic efforts of this military unit by presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to the Rhode Island State Library in their honor for display, research, and ceremonial purposes.
 
“Despite their honorable service to our nation, many of those who fought in the First Rhode Island Regiment did not receive the recognition they deserved following the Revolutionary War. Instead, many were forced to resist efforts at re-enslavement, while at the same time having to fight for back wages from the Rhode Island General Assembly,” said Congressman Cicilline. “This is hardly how we should treat those who fought for the creation of this nation. The Congressional Gold Medal was initially established by the Continental Congress in 1776 to honor high achievement and distinction among Revolutionary military and naval leaders. Surely, the First Rhode Island Regiment qualifies for this centuries-old tradition.”
 
“More than a century and a half before the United States Armed Forces were integrated, the First Rhode Island Regiment fought valiantly for our nation’s independence,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “Our bipartisan legislation will finally recognize the heroic efforts of the First Rhode Island Regiment by awarding a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to the Black and Indigenous men who enlisted, many of whom had to fend off re-enslavement and were initially denied wages they had earned.  This long overdue honor is a small step toward securing their rightful place in the history of our state and of our nation.”

“Members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment served with distinction in General Washington’s Continental Army.  They fought to secure our nation’s freedom – freedom that Black and Indigenous members of the Regiment would continue to struggle to secure and maintain for themselves long after the war had ceased.  This legislation honors these soldiers and will help the full, multi-faceted story of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment gain wider recognition,” said Senator Reed.

“Black and Native Americans saw the promise of a freer, more just society,” said Dr. Cassidy. “They fought for this end. We must continue that fight.”
 
“This award is a small step toward ensuring these soldiers and patriots finally get the recognition they deserve for defending our nation at its very inception,” said Senator Graham.
 
“It’s long past time that we recognize the heroic contributions of Rhode Island’s First Regiment, who bravely put their lives on the line to fight for freedom in the Revolutionary War,” said Congressman Langevin. “I’m so proud that our nation’s first integrated unit hailed from the Ocean State, and I look forward to these courageous soldiers receiving the recognition they so rightly deserve.”

More than 170 years before President Harry Truman officially integrated the United States Armed Forces, a racially diverse, integrated unit, the First Rhode Island Regiment, fought valiantly for our nation’s independence.
 
In the winter of Valley Forge, from 1777-1778, the Continental Army faced tremendously difficult odds and had difficulty recruiting the necessary forces. To address these difficulties, the Rhode Island General Assembly called for the enlistment of an integrated force – including enslaved individuals, individuals of mixed race, and Indigenous Americans – to help fill the State’s quota. The Assembly also provided that, upon an honorable discharge, any enslaved individual who served in this new Regiment would be provided their freedom.
 
By June 1778, nearly 200 men of African and Indigenous descent enlisted to form the core of the First Rhode Island Regiment. In August 1778, this Regiment fought valiantly in one of the Revolutionary War’s turning points, the Battle of Rhode Island. The Rhode Island Regiment was demobilized in June 1783 at Saratoga.
 
The First Rhode Island Regiment Congressional Gold Medal Act is endorsed by NAACP Providence, the RI Black Heritage Society, and the Newport County Branch NAACP.
 
“The NAACP New England Area Conference applauds both Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Congressman David Cicilline for proposing legislation which would recognize the Revolutionary War's First Rhode Island Regiment, the first Black military battalion in American history!” said Jim Vincent, NAACP Providence Branch President.
 
"The African heritage and indigenous soldiers that compromised the Rhode Island First fought for and earned a newfound sense of pride and determination that would later set the stage to advance freedom and equality for all Americans,” said Theresa Stokes, Executive Director of the RI Black Heritage Society.
 
"This is a very important legislature bill which is long overdue,” said Jimmy Winters, President, Newport County Branch NAACP. “Thank you, Senator Whitehouse and Representative Cicilline."
 
Other original cosponsors of the legislation include Alma Adams (NC-12), Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), Shontel Brown (OH-11), Tony Cárdenas (CA-29), André Carson (IN-07), Judy Chu (CA-27), Steve Cohen (TN-09), Jim Costa (CA-16), Madeleine Dean (PA-04), Diana DeGette (CO-01), Debbie Dingell (MI-12), Dwight Evans (PA-03), Lois Frankel (FL-21), John Garamendi (CA-03), Raúl Grijalva (AZ-03), Ruben Gallego (AZ-07), Sara Jacobs (CA-53), Robin Kelly (IL-02), Kaiali'i Kahele (HI-02), Ro Khanna (CA-17), Ann Kirkpatrick (AZ-02), Brenda Lawrence (MI-14), Al Lawson (FL-05), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Ted Lieu (CA-33), Alan Lowenthal (CA-47), Elaine Luria (VA-02), Stephen Lynch (MA-09), Jim McGovern (MA-02), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Jerry Nadler (NY-10), Richard Neal (MA-01), Norton (DC), Chris Pappas (NH-01), Bill Pascrell (NJ-09), Donald Payne, Jr. (NJ-10), Lucille Roybal-Allard (CA-40), Jan Schakowsky (IL-09), Tom Suozzi (NY-03), Mark Takano (CA-41), Peter Welch (VT-AL).
 

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