In his graduation tackle at Washington, D.C.’s Howard College in June 1924, virtually six years after World Battle I ended, President Calvin Coolidge paid tribute to African Individuals who had fought in it:
“The coloured individuals have repeatedly proved their devotion to the excessive beliefs of our nation. They gave their companies within the struggle with the identical patriotism and readiness that different residents did. The information of the selective draft present that considerably greater than 2,250,000 coloured males had been registered. The information additional show that, removed from in search of to keep away from participation within the nationwide protection, they confirmed that they wished to enlist earlier than the selective service act was put into operation, and they didn’t try to evade that act afterwards.”
American involvement in that European calamity stays controversial to this present day. Personally, I regard it as one of many two best international coverage blunders for the reason that daybreak of the twentieth century (the opposite being the Iraq Battle of 2003). Nonetheless, one can oppose the selections of politicians and nonetheless admire the battlefield valor of those that carried them out.
When Woodrow Wilson and the Congress dedicated America to the struggle in April 1917, the nation’s black residents might rightfully ask (and a few did), “What’s in it for us?” Wilson stated America should “make the world secure for democracy” however proper right here at dwelling, democracy was all too typically denied to blacks. Wilson himself regarded them as second-class residents. He promoted segregation all through the federal authorities and turned a blind eye to discrimination by state and native governments.
Nonetheless, African Individuals went to struggle, lots of them hoping they may defeat each Germans overseas and racism at dwelling in the event that they proved themselves in battle. Coolidge’s excessive reward was richly earned, and no contingent of African Individuals deserved it greater than the US Military’s 369th Infantry, a volunteer regiment often called the Harlem Hellfighters.
The place did their nickname come from? Harlem (in New York Metropolis) was dwelling to lots of the enlistees. Nobody appears positive, nevertheless it was both the French or the Germans who first referred to them as Hellfighters due to the fierceness with which they fought. And none fought extra ferociously than Henry Johnson. On one evening within the Argonne Forest, Johnson endured 21 wounds as he killed 4 Germans in hand-to-hand fight and rescued a fellow American—all in a matter of minutes. A whole platoon of 28 German troopers scattered and fled on the sight of Johnson’s prowess.
Fashioned from a New York Nationwide Guard unit, the lads of the 369th discovered primary army practices at Camp Whitman, New York, earlier than being despatched to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for fight coaching. They weren’t welcomed by lots of the locals there, and a few had been subjected to discrimination and vile epithets for no extra cause than their colour. In December 1917, they had been shipped to France the place they anticipated to see motion on the entrance strains.
Their excessive spirits had been shortly dashed when it turned obvious the Military didn’t need to deploy them for something aside from handbook labor, removed from the preventing. Even the rifles they introduced with them had been confiscated by U.S. Military officers.
The commander of the American Expeditionary Power, Gen. John J. Pershing, was reluctant to commit any U.S. troops to the entrance till he felt he had assembled them in enough numbers to make sure victory. The French, in the meantime, had been determined for manpower. Lastly bowing to French strain, Pershing gave them the 369th. Whereas some regarded black troops as expendable, they in the end proved themselves indispensable.
Think about this wonderful document of the Harlem Hellfighters: No American unit skilled extra time in fight than they did—a minimum of 191 days below hearth. They by no means misplaced an inch of floor. The enemy by no means captured a single of their quantity. They suffered the best casualty price of any U.S. regiment. None abandoned. The grateful French bestowed their highest army honor, the Croix de Guerre, upon all the regiment. Many people of the regiment obtained the U.S. Military’s second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross. Posthumously, Henry Johnson obtained America’s Medal of Honor in 2015. The 369th ended up as essentially the most embellished U.S. regiment of the struggle.
One other distinguishing function of the Harlem Hellfighters was their band, the biggest and best-known of any regiment. Its chief was James Reese Europe, whose enlistment in 1917 proved to be a boon for recruitment. He was one in every of America’s best-known black musicians and others comparable to Noble Sissle, who turned Europe’s lieutenant and lead vocalist, had been desperate to serve with him.
Europe’s band was extraordinarily standard with the French, even when Europe launched his personal association of “La Marseillaise,” France’s nationwide anthem. The Hellfighters’ band introduced each jazz and ragtime music to France, the place no one had heard both earlier than.
James Reese Europe was tragically murdered in Could 1919 by a disgruntled band member. Sissle went on to nice fame in music and stage. He fashioned a life-long partnership with black musician Eubie Blake. The musical that the 2 of them produced in 1921, “Shuffle Alongside,” ran for greater than 500 performances on Broadway and is credited with igniting the magnificent flowering of tradition we all know because the Harlem Renaissance.
No story of the Harlem Hellfighters, which I encourage readers to discover via the hyperlinks offered under, can be full with out a point out of a white man, Col. William Hayward, a local of Nebraska. Hayward served because the regiment’s commander from its inception. He was a champion of black troopers and beloved by his males, in whom Hayward by no means misplaced religion. He was an unwavering defender of equal rights for all colours. When the 369th returned to New York in 1919, it was Hayward (not Wilson or Pershing) who ensured there can be an enormous parade to welcome them. That reception by cheering throngs within the streets of New York was an excellent second of racial concord.
It doesn’t matter what you concentrate on America getting into World Battle I, and it doesn’t matter what colour your pores and skin, you possibly can rejoice the heroic Harlem Hellfighters. They had been among the many finest.
For Further Info, See:
“James Reece Europe and the Hellfighters” (video) from half 2 of Ken Burns’ “Jazz”
“The Harlem Hellfighters” (video) from the Historical past Channel
“The Harlem Hellfighters’ Great War” (video) from IMDb TV
“Harlem Hellfighters 369th Infantry” from A&E (video)
“The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage” by Walter Dean Myers and Invoice Miles
“The Hellfighters of Harlem” by Invoice Harris
“The Harlem Hellfighters” (novel) by Max Brooks