Racism deprived a WWI hero of the Medal of Honor. A legislator aims to make it right.

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At a time when states are restricting the teaching of racism in U.S. history, Rep. Veronica Escobar is calling for a correction of the bigotry that denied a Mexican American World War I hero the nation’s highest military honor.

Escobar, a Texas Democrat, has introduced legislation that would authorize President Joe Biden to posthumously award Marcelino Serna, considered the most decorated WWI soldier from Texas, the Congressional Medal of Honor.

“Our country, unfortunately, has a long history of discriminating against minorities and unfortunately, heroes and women and men who have served on behalf of the military have not escaped that discrimination,” Escobar told NBC News.

Serna, a former private, was highly decorated for his wartime heroics, credited with single-handedly capturing German soldiers on different occasions, destroying a machine gun site and taking enemy soldiers as prisoners.

He was the first Mexican American awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the second-highest military honor for extraordinary heroism that can be awarded to members of the U.S. Army and the previous U.S. Army Air Force.

Serna, a migrant from Mexico who volunteered for duty even though his immigrant status granted him an exemption, was denied the Medal of Honor because he did not have a high enough rank and was told he could not be promoted because he could not read or write English well enough, according to a 1989 Department of Defense document.

Commander M.R. McKinney, Marcelino Serna, Diana Stopani, Mrs. M. Serna, and Major Bernard L. Mourlevat. (Courtesy Texas Historical Commission)
Commander M.R. McKinney, Marcelino Serna, Diana Stopani, Mrs. M. Serna, and Major Bernard L. Mourlevat. (Courtesy Texas Historical Commission)

Escobar’s legislation follows the Texas Legislature’s passage of a bill that would restrict how racism is taught in Texas schools. The bill is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

The Texas bill was at first stripped of an amendment that would have required that students learn about white supremacy and how it is morally wrong. The amendment was later added back when the bill's survival was threatened.

State Rep. Steve Toth, a Republican, said the bill was needed because “at a time when racial tensions are at a boiling point, we don’t need to burden our kids with guilt for racial crimes they had nothing to do with,” The Dallas Morning News reported.

Other states are passing similar laws.

Escobar criticized the Texas GOP lawmakers for wanting to further hide and deny parts of U.S. history that already have been long kept concealed from school lessons, such as the looting and bombing of the Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 by white residents in what is known as the Tulsa Race Massacre. The nation marked 100 years since the massacre began on May 31.

“It is shocking that we have legislators who want to do everything possible to whitewash history to sweep atrocities under the rug. … This is why we have to redouble our efforts to find those names of those heroes, so we can celebrate them and tell their stories,” Escobar said. “We cannot recognize why they were denied their recognition without understanding what created that denial.”

Other attempts have been made to get Serna the Congressional Medal of Honor.

In this year’s Texas legislative session, state Sen. Cesar Blanco, a Democrat from El Paso, introduced a resolution proposing Serna for the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor. It was approved in both chambers and awaits Abbott’s approval.

Serna’s heroics have gotten more attention after the American G.I. Forum, a Latino civil rights and federally chartered veterans group, sent his name to the Pentagon.

Under orders from Congress, the Pentagon is reviewing records of Latino, Black, Asian, Native American and Jewish WWI soldiers to determine whether they were denied the Medal of Honor because of their race or religion.

The review is taking place as the military also seeks to eliminate names of military facilities and properties or other commemorations of members of the Confederate army and as a report by The Associated Press detailed entrenched racism and discrimination in the U.S. military.

In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded the medal to 24 veterans of later wars after a similar review. Many of the recipients were Latino. All but three of the medals were awarded posthumously.

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