Harlem Hellfighters: Black Soldiers in World War I
During World War I the 369th Infantry from Harlem, an all-black military unit, acquired the name “Harlem Hellfighters.” They were not only fierce, but they showed great stamina, proving their value in measurable ways: They served in continuous combat for longer than any other American unit; they fought the longest on the front during the Champagne-Marne offensive; and they were the first Allied unit to cross the Rhine River during the Allied offensive.
The story of the 369th is two-pronged: a story of character and heroism overseas that was greeted by continued discrimination at home.
How the Hellfighters Began
When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, only four regiments in the regular Army were open to African-Americans; and those units were restricted as to their duties. They could provide manual labor necessary for the war effort but they were not considered fit for combat.
Because of the number of African-Americans who signed up or were drafted, some of the National Guard units that accepted blacks were then conscripted to be on loan to the U.S. Army. This was how the 369th was formed. The unit began as the 15th New York National Guard before they were absorbed into the Army as the 369th Infantry.
All military units had to go through special training prior to going overseas, and the 369th was sent to Spartanburg, South Carolina. Black men wearing the American military uniform inflamed the Southerners. The fear of assault by town residents was ever-present for the black troops, and if members of the 369th were on leave and in town, locals pushed them off the sidewalks.
Yet many of the African-Americans who enlisted felt that war service was an opportunity to prove themselves. If they showed themselves as good Americans, wouldn’t that help reduce discrimination at home?
Harlem Hellfighters Sent Overseas
The 369th Infantry regiment arrived in France on January 1, 1918. For the first three months they were assigned to do manual labor, primarily unloading ships and digging latrines while their colonel argued that they should be allowed in combat. William Haywood, a prominent white New York attorney who enlisted to join the fight, felt strongly that the men should be allowed to be full participants. Haywood eventually got his way but there was a twist: Because the 369th soldiers were black, they were not permitted to fight alongside American troops.
The French were in desperate need of replacement units so the men of the 369th Infantry Regiment were assigned to fight for the Allies but under French command. They continued to wear the U.S. Army uniform, but in integrating them into the French 161st Division, they were assigned the steel “Adrian” helmets, brown leather belts, and pouches worn by the French. They were also given French weaponry so that the supply chain of ammunition would be smooth. In their hierarchy of order-taking, they were totally under French control.
Military Brass Slighted Harlem Hellfighters
Prior to the 369th’s assignment to work directly under the French, General Pershing issued a warning to the French military. (The 369th unit was unaware of Pershing’s actions until much later.)
Pershing sent out a pamphlet entitled: “Secret Information Concerning the Black American Troops.” The directive essentially warns the French that if they work too closely or too well with the members of the 369th, then Americans would hold it against them. “The increasing number of Negroes in the United States (about 15,000,000) would create for the white race in the Republic a menace of degeneracy were it not that an impassable gulf has been made between them…”
Later the booklet states: “Although a citizen of the United States, the black man is regarded by the white American as an inferior being …” (The pamphlet can be read in its entirety at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.)
Harlem Hellfighters: Endurance and Fearsome Fighting
While the Pershing booklet was being read (and more or less ignored by the French who were used to fighting alongside colonists of other colors from other countries), the men of the 369th were out dedicating themselves to doing their part to win the war.
They became known not only for their fearsome fighting (see the profile of Henry Lincoln Johnson that describes how they earned their reputation), but they also proved their endurance: They fought from the trenches for 191 days—longer than any other American unit. None of their soldiers were ever captured though they did eventually lose about half the regiment (1500 losses) toward the end of the war. Ultimately, their war record showed a unit that consistently went above and beyond to fight for the Allies.
After the war, the French Army acknowledged their fine work. The regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the highest honor given by the French. There were also 171 individual medals awarded to members of the 369th.
The unit also had another claim to fame: they were known for their music. The 369th Regiment Marching Band was commanded by James Reese Europe, one of the best-known jazz band leaders in the U.S. He and the military band are said to have introduced jazz to the Allies.
The Return Home
The 369th was the first full regiment to return to the United States so they were first to be honored by a parade. The festivities began early on the morning of February 17, 1919. The Harlem Hellfighters paraded up Fifth Avenue from 23rd Street to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue. The schools in Harlem were dismissed for the day so students could be on hand to welcome the soldiers home.
At the parade’s conclusion, the men, followed by family and friends, loaded up subway car after subway car to travel to the 34th Street Armory where the celebration continued.
But this parade was to be the only one in which they were included. When a Victory Parade was held in later months for the entire military, the Harlem Hellfighters were not permitted to participate.