February 28, 2023

Whitehouse Leads Reintroduction of Bill to Honor Nation’s First Black Military Unit with Congressional Gold Medal

Washington, DC – On the final day of Black History Month, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) today led the reintroduction of bipartisan legislation to posthumously award America’s first Black military unit with the Congressional Gold Medal.  The First Rhode Island Regiment Congressional Gold Medal Act aims to commemorate the legacy of this Revolutionary War unit by presenting the Congressional Gold Medal in its honor to the Rhode Island State Library for display, research, and ceremonial purposes.

“Nearly two and a half centuries after the First Rhode Island Regiment was formed, I am pleased to lead this bipartisan effort to award the Congressional Gold Medal to our nation’s first Black military unit,” said Senator Whitehouse.  “Our bill will recognize the heroic service of the First Rhode Island Regiment by awarding a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to the Black and Indigenous men who fought for our nation’s independence, 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.”

“This was the very first integrated military unit to fight for the United States.  Members of the First 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.  I want to thank Senator Whitehouse for drafting this legislation and honoring these soldiers and telling the full, multi-faceted story of the First Rhode Island Regiment,” said Senator Reed.

“Black Americans saw the promise of a freer, more just society,” said Dr. Cassidy.  “They fought for this end. We must continue their work.”

“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.

Before famous Black military units like the Tuskegee Airmen and Harlem Hellfighters cemented their place in American history, 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 long odds and had difficulty recruiting the necessary forces.  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 meet the state’s quota.  The Assembly also provided that, upon enlistment, any enslaved individual who served in this new Regiment would be freed.

By June of 1778, nearly 200 men of African and Indigenous descent enlisted to form the First Rhode Island Regiment – now regarded as America’s first Black military unit by the Museum of the American Revolution.  In August 1778, this Regiment fought valiantly in one of the Revolutionary War’s turning points, the Battle of Rhode Island.  After five years of honorable service, the Rhode Island Regiment was demobilized in June 1783 at Saratoga. 

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.  Enactment would be a fitting honor for this group of men, especially given that many former soldiers had to resist efforts at re-enslavement and fight for back wages owed to them for their years of distinguished service.

The First Rhode Island Regiment Congressional Gold Medal Act is endorsed by the Museum of the American Revolution, Military-Veterans Advocacy, Inc., BlackPast.org, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, and the Newport County Branch of the NAACP.

“At least 5,000 men of color fought in the Continental Army, but their contributions to the nation are not well known.  We are committed to lifting up these lesser-known stories at the Museum and are thrilled that this legislation seeks to pay tribute to the extraordinary lives of these men, who wore the uniform of the United States, helped to secure its independence and prosperity, and yet who have not received the recognition they deserve as American founders.  We all benefit from a richer, more inclusive view of our nation’s history,” said Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, President and CEO of the Museum of the American Revolution.

“It is an historical imperative that the courage of the Black Regiment in the American Revolutionary War be memorialized.  These men of ‘uncommon valor’ helped to win a decisive battle for liberty and justice, paving the way for our democratic form of government.  Their fortitude and dedication are still inspiring,” said James I. Winters, President, Newport County Branch, NAACP.

“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.

The legislation is cosponsored by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Kevin Cramer (R-ND), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bob Casey (D-PA), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Edward Markey (D-MA), and Mark Warner (D-VA).

Full text of the bill is available here.

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921

Press Contact

Meaghan McCabe, (202) 224-2921