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Virginia to Honor Asian American Pacific Islanders With Historical Markers

August 3, 2021 by Dan McCue
The Naval Museum in Hampton Roads, Va. The NAvy Base here was an important anchor for filipinos settling in the United States. (WIkimedia Commons)

RICHMOND — The state of Virginia will erect five new state historical highway markers honoring Asian American Pacific Islander history in the Commonwealth, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday.

The markers were submitted by Virginia students through the inaugural AAPI Heritage Month Historical Marker Contest. 

The five new markers will be formally submitted to the Board of Historic Resources in September and are expected to receive approval in the coming months.

“Throughout history, Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have made significant contributions to our Commonwealth and our country, but too often their stories remain untold,” Northam said during a virtual event announcing the winning proposals. 

“As we continue working to tell a more comprehensive and inclusive Virginia story, I am grateful for the efforts of Virginia students and educators in helping elevate the voices of prominent AAPI Virginians with these five new historical markers,” he said.

Launched in May, the AAPI Heritage Month Historical Marker Contest invited students, teachers, and families to learn more about Asian Americans who have made important contributions to Virginia history and submit ideas for new historical markers to the Department of Historical Resources.

“Through the governor’s historical marker contests and various other initiatives, the Department of Historic Resources is determined to highlight untold stories and I am grateful to all the students and educators who have helped make this vision a reality,” said Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Matthew J. Strickler in a written statement. “These students have made a meaningful contribution to our historic justice efforts and worked hard to ensure our markers are inclusive, diverse, and tell the full Virginia story.”

The student winners and descriptions of the five new markers selected for installation are as follows:

“Filipinos in the U.S. Navy” (Virginia Beach), nominated by students from Cherry Run Elementary School in Burke, Virginia, and by the adult English as a Second Language program in Chesterfield County, Virginia.

Filipino members of the U.S. Navy have served in Hampton Roads since at least the Civil War. A full Filipino-American community began emerging after the Philippines achieved independence in 1946 and the Navy began recruiting Filipinos for all positions. Today, spurred by the Navy and a large nursing community, Hampton Roads is the second-largest Filipino community on the East Coast. 

“Kim Kyusik” (Salem), nominated by students from Cumberland Middle School in Cumberland, Virginia.

In 1903, Kyusik graduated from Roanoke College, which today funds a fellowship in his memory. He held several roles in the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea including foreign minister and vice president, and was a representative at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. He was kidnapped by North Korean factions after World War II and died in captivity.

“Arthur Azo Matsu” (Williamsburg) nominated by students from Cumberland Middle School in Cumberland, Virginia.

Matsu graduated from William & Mary in 1927, where he was the first Asian American student. The son of a Scottish mother and a Japanese father, he became a leader on campus even as Virginia introduced a series of laws in the 1920s to prevent “race mixing.” 

He became the first Japanese-American football player in the National Football League as a quarterback, after guiding William & Mary’s high-octane offense from 1923–1926 and leading the program to its first postseason win. 

“W. W. Yen” also known as Yan Huiqing (Charlottesville) nominated by students from Hunters Woods Elementary in Reston, Virginia.

Yen graduated from the University of Virginia in 1900, where he was the first international student to earn a bachelor’s degree and the first Chinese student to earn a degree. One of China’s key early 20th century leaders, he served as premier five times and held a series of important cabinet and diplomatic posts. The University of Virginia now has a dorm and scholarship fund named after him. 

“Vietnamese Immigrants in Northern Virginia” (Falls Church) nominated by students at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church, Virginia.

The Vietnamese community began solidifying in Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood during the 1970s, becoming known as Little Saigon by the end of the decade. The fall of the South Vietnamese government spurred a surge in immigration, with the D.C. area becoming the third-largest Vietnamese community in the country. Climbing rents pushed much of the Vietnamese commerce west to the Eden Center in the 1980s, which over the ensuing years has expanded and became at one point the largest Vietnamese shopping district in the country.

A recording of the 2021 AAPI Heritage Month Historical Marker Contest virtual celebration is available here.

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