Congressman Scott Rigell represents Virginia’s Second Congressional District in Congress, which is home to more men and women in uniform, active duty and retired, than any other district in the country.
Growing up, my elementary school was fully integrated and I never saw a “Whites Only” sign in a restaurant. Because of my own experience, it is difficult to grasp how it was that our nation once held to a culture and legal structure so morally deficient that it resulted in, for example, African Americans fighting for a country, their country, in which they were anything but equal.
Yet it was so.
In 1774 Abigail Adams wrote of slavery: “It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.” She was right. From the very start of the Revolutionary War, African Americans agreed. They were ready to fight for a democratic revolution and the freedoms other Americans enjoyed. By the war’s end, between 5,000 and 8,000 African Americans had served in the military in some capacity, either on the battlefield, in noncombatant roles, or on the seas.
Though slavery was abolished in 1865, many painful years passed before African Americans were afforded equal rights under the law – including the right to fight alongside their fellow Americans in our nation’s battles. Most Americans know of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American servicemen to serve as military aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces, flying during World War II. Fewer know of the Montford Point Marines, a division established in 1942 when President Roosevelt issued a presidential directive giving African Americans an opportunity to serve in the Marine Corps. One of those men was my good friend Master Gunnery Sergeant Jimmy Hargrove, a Hampton Roads native who was among the first to serve as a Montford Point Marine.
When Jimmy went to Montford Point, N.C. in 1948, he didn’t yet know that the Marines were segregated. African American Marine recruits were not trained at Parris Island or San Diego, but received basic training at Montford Point, a facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C. This did not stop Jimmy – and approximately 20,000 other Montford Point Marines – from breaking through racial barriers and serving their country with great distinction. From the front lines, he fought and sacrificed for this country at a great and high expense. From the trenches, he fought to defend the very freedoms and liberties that were denied to him back home in America. Master Gunnery Sergeant Jimmy Hargrove proudly served for 30 years and his example of selfless service to our country inspires many, including me.
Despite the many years of hardship and struggle, African Americans continue to serve our nation with distinction, and many have laid down their lives for the blessings of liberty and freedom. This Thursday, we honor and remember the life of Lance Corporal Kielin Dunn, an African American Marine from Virginia Beach who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. My wife Teri and I know and deeply respect his family; Kielin’s mother serves as our office’s Military Liaison.
I don’t know why providence calls upon some to give their very life for freedom, but I do know this with certainty: there is no discrimination at Arlington Cemetery. Americans of all race, ethnicity, gender, and political affiliation have laid down their lives for our nation. And the tombstones are marked with only one distinction: the man or woman lying beneath paid the full measure of sacrifice for you and me, and for future generations of Americans.
The bitter paradox of our American journey – when the noble promises of liberty and freedom were in turbulent and often violent conflict with the reality of slavery and segregation – must not be forgotten. What unfolded in days past must be taught to our children as a moral beacon of the profound injustice that man is capable of inflicting on others, and of the significant progress that has been made. It should give us strength and resolve to complete the work that remains.
I encourage you to learn even more about our nation’s first African American service members. The Library of Congress offers a collection of firsthand accounts from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans, including letters, photos, videos, personal notes and interviews. This information can be accessed by clicking here.