When the 369th Infantry arrived in Brittany on January 1, 1918, they were one of the four African-American regiments sent from the racially segregated U.S. to fight under French command during the Great War. Nicknamed Harlem Hellfighters, the unit would spend more time in combat than any other African-American unit during World War I, spending 191 days in the trenches.
Confronting racism even as they trained for war, these African-American troops fought a war for a country that refused them basic rights and their courage made headlines, according to Smithsonian. They fought heroically on the battlefield, claiming to have been the first unit to cross the Rhine into Germany. They also fought at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood, suffered around 1,500 combat casualties but received only 900 replacement soldiers. The regiment and many of the soldiers in it would eventually be awarded one of the French military’s high honors, the Croix de Guerre.
Though they distinguished themselves in battle, their story has largely been left unnoticed. On April 9, 2021, New York Congressman Tom Suozzi announced that he is introducing legislation to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the regiment. A long-overdue recognition. “They never lost an inch of ground, suffered many injuries but never had anyone taken as a POW,” Suozzi said in a statement. “A great failure of this country is how we treated African Americans throughout our history, and this is just another example of it.”
The Harlem Hellfighters was formed in 1916 by New York Gov. Charles Whitman. It was known as the 15th New York (Colored) National Guard Regiment before becoming the 369th Infantry Regiment after the U.S. entered World War I. The men were the first Black soldiers in New York’s National Guard. The majority of them were from Harlem. Some of them were doormen, porters, elevator operators, teachers and mailmen. James Reese Europe, who enlisted as a lieutenant, was ordered to put together the best band he could find.
A military band during wartime was basically to lift morale. Europe, whose greatest talent was as a conductor, an organizer, and promoter before joining the regiment as a lieutenant, would soon put together a 40-strong band, including several other members he went to Puerto Rico to recruit. Basically, each soldier in the unit could fight and play an instrument.
Six months after the U.S. officially entered World War I, the all-Black unit was sent to train for combat in Spartanburg, South Carolina. But members of the unit were met with racist insults and abuse, bringing to bear the discrimination Black people faced in the military and the country as a whole. Following the harassment, the unit was relocated or deployed to France. While in Europe, the regiment was only made to perform menial jobs like most Black troops but it was later sent to the French Army’s 161st Division, which was experiencing a shortage of men.
On March 1, 1918, the regiment was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, after having joined the French Army’s 161st Division. The unit began combat in April. The American Army was against Black soldiers fighting alongside White soldiers, but the French did not mind and would at the end of the day award about 171 members of The Harlem Hellfighters the Croix de Guerre for valor.
The unit did not only make the news for its fighting ability but also its marching band that would eventually introduce the revolutionary jazz music to British, French and other European audiences. Between battles, the unit performed concerts to troops and locals. Led by Europe, the band, in February and March 1918, traveled over 2,000 miles in France, performing for military audiences as well as French civilians, a Mail Online report said. During this period, the band gave what is said to have been the first jazz concert on European soil, in the northwestern French city of Nantes, the report added. The splendid performance at Nantes’s Theatre Graslin “turned France upside down”, according to local reports from the time.
In February 1919 when the Harlem Hellfighters returned to New York, a parade to honor them was held at Fifth Avenue in New York City. Europe led the regimental band. William Henry Johnson, who had been honored by the French for fighting off several Germans single-handedly in the Forest of Argonne during the war, led the procession in an open-top Cadillac while thousands celebrated them for their bravery.
But this bravery resulted in difficulties for most members of the Harlem Hellfighters, especially Johnson. He had returned from the war with bullets striking both feet, his thigh, his arm, and his head. A scar stretched over his lip, and he had to have a metal plate inserted into his left foot, according to Mental Floss. These injuries prevented him from grabbing many employment opportunities and sources say his wife and three children subsequently left him. Racist attacks against Black veterans also continued upon the return of the unit.
A Purple Heart was finally presented to Johnson posthumously by President Bill Clinton in 1996. In 2015, then-President Barack Obama topped it with the award of the Medal of Honor. “…America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson, we can’t change what happened to too many soldiers like him who went uncelebrated, because our nation judged them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character,” Obama said. “But we can do our best to make it right.”