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Marine Vonzia Rigsby honored with Congressional Gold Medal at NAS Meridian

Clement E. Hill holds the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously awarded to his father Pfc. Burnie W. Hill, a Montford Point Marine May 31, 2018 at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. (Sgt. Timothy Smithers/US. Marine Corps)

Veteran Vonzia J. Rigsby, 98, became a Marine during a time when black and white Marines were still segregated.

Calling on his duty to serve his county, Rigsby was one of many black Marines who served during World War II as Montford Point Marines. His service to his country was recognized on Tuesday when he was presented the Congressional Gold Medal at Naval Air Station Meridian.

The Newton County native was one of the first African Americans to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, after President Franklin Roosevelt issued an Executive Order establishing the Fair Employment Practices Commission in June 1941. He was honorably discharged as a corporal on April 22, 1946.

Because the Marine Corps was the last military branch to be integrated, black service members trained at Montford Point in Jacksonville, North Carolina from August 1942 until the camp was decommissioned in September 1949.

The largest number of black Marines to serve was at the seizure of Okinawa, with 2,000 seeing action. During World War II, more than 19,000 blacks served in the Marine Corps.

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The National Montford Point Marine Association was established in 1975 to honor blacks who served in the Marine Corps.

Cynthia House, who attended the ceremony honoring Rigsby, joined the Marines during the civil rights movement and fought for her country during the Vietnam War.

She said Rigsby and his fellow Marines paved the way for her service.

“You had to succeed because we stood on the shoulders of those who made it possible,” House said.

Retired Marine Lt. Janice Mitchell described Rigsby as a trailblazer.

“They paved the way,” she said of the Montford Point Marines. “I would not have been in the Marine Corps if it wasn’t for them.”

Marine Chief Warrant Officer Five James T. Averhart, Jr., past president of the National Montford Point Marine Association, presented Rigsby with the medal during Tuesday’s ceremony.

He called Rigsby a true American hero.

“Rigsby, like all the others, was a trailblazer who dared to be a Marine during a time when African Americans were excluded from the Marines.” he said. “The story of the Montford Point Marines was a story of resilience and perseverance.”

Averhart said those Marines shouldn’t be forgotten, and that everyone should honor their sacrifice.

“This is not just black history or Marine Corps history,” he emphasized. “This is American history. The world needs to know about the legacy of the Montford Point Marines.”

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© 2019 The Meridian Star