'Trailblazing' Black Regiment remembered in Portsmouth
PORTSMOUTH — Alan Hoffman took out a throwback Brooklyn Dodgers cap and placed it on his head.
In doing so, the Harvard Law School grad, who grew up in Brooklyn, was making a comparison between the "Black Regiment" Continental Army unit that fought here during the Revolutionary War's Battle of Rhode Island and a certain ballplayer who broke the Major League Baseball color barrier in 1947.
"These guys are the Jackie Robinsons of the American military," Mr. Hoffman said of the Black Regiment. "Like Jackie Robinson, they blazed the trail and others followed."
Mr. Hoffman was the main speaker at Sunday's ceremony at Patriots Park, located at the intersections of routes 114 and 24. The park contains a memorial to the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which became known as the "Black Regiment" after Rhode Island, which was having trouble recruiting enough white men to meet troop quotas, enlisted slaves to serve in the unit.
The regiment was a contingent of slaves, freedmen and Native Americans who valiantly stopped the advances of the Hessian forces at the site of the park on Aug. 29, 1778 — 235 years ago — during the Revolutionary War.
"The fact that it started here is mind-blowing," said James Vincent, president of the Providence branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which presented the event.
Mr. Hoffman said the Rhode Island legislature agreed to free any slaves who enlisted in the regiment after their service.
"Blacks wanted to volunteer and were risking their lives for freedom," he said. "Men of the Rhode Island 1st Regiment enlisted for the duration of the war. That was a condition of their freedom."
The Black Regiment, he said, "blazed the trail" for many others, including the "Buffalo Soldiers" Army units formed in 1866; Colin Powell, the first African-American U.S. secretary of state in 2001; and President Barack Obama.
"These men served nobly in a truly integrated regiment," he said, pointed out that it took another 200 years — with the Vietnam War — for the U.S. military to be completely devoid of segregated units.
The ceremony featured a wreath-laying by Paul Gaines, a member of the Newport branch of the NAACP, and Joyce Stevos, president of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. The 2nd Rhode Island Regiment of the Continental Army lent color to the event, which was attended by several local officials including Town Council President James Seveney and Doug Smith, chairman of the Portsmouth 375th Steering Committee.
Mr. Seveney noted it was quite a year for commemorations. Besides the 235th anniversary of the Battle of Rhode Island, it was also the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the 100th anniversary of the Providence NAACP and the 375th anniversary of the founding of Portsmouth.
"We are all proud of our historic heritage in Portsmouth," added Mr. Smith, who pointed out the town's "fascinating history, a key part of which we're remembering today."