During the course of World War I, early in 1918, New York’s 15th, folded into the US Army’s 93rd Division as the 369th Infantry Regiment, landed in Brest, France. Nicknamed the Harlem hellfighters, they were 2,000 Black men strong. As soon as the troops disembarked from their segregated transport ship, the regimental band delighted French onlookers by playing a new arrangement of the French national anthem. Jazz, America’s most authentic sound, had arrived in Europe.
The 369th had been training for combat in Spartanburg, South Carolina, enduring the racism of white Southerners, to prepare for battle. But as was so often the case with Black troops, once they were in the theater of war, white field commanders assigned them to the Army Service Forces to perform labor-intensive tasks such as unloading supplies from ships.
Dissatisfied, the 369th accepted a reassignment to the French army, which solved several political problems for General John Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force. It satisfied America’s European allies who had been clamoring for American reinforcements. It preserved the autonomy of the American Expeditionary Force, which President Wilson craved. And it kept white American soldiers from having to fight alongside African American soldiers.
The Harlem Hellfighters
Over the course of the war, General Pershing reassigned three additional African American infantry regiments from the 93rd Division to the French army. For Black soldiers, attaching to a European ally was not ideal, but it was far better than spending the war cleaning latrines.
Nicknamed the “Harlem hellfighters”, they spent three weeks training with French forces before being sent into combat on April 15, 1918, a full month before American-led troops saw their first real action. Trench warfare was a horror, but the Harlem hellfighters lived up to their nickname, demonstrating ferocity and courage in the face of a German offensive that lasted three months.
A Remarkable Display of Valor
In a remarkable display of valor, two soldiers, Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, turned back a German trench raiding party. The Harlem hellfighters killed 4 of 24 enemy combatants in close quarters. Private Johnson, who suffered two gunshot wounds during the attack, managed to thwart an attempt to capture Roberts. Their heroism earned them the Croix de Guerre, the French medal for heroism in battle—the highest award the French bestowed on Allied troops. It was the regiment’s first honor, but it would not be its last.
Such recognition, however, came at a steep price. The unit spent 191 days on the front lines, more than any other American fighting group. The Harlem hellfighters experienced some of the war’s most intense fighting. And they suffered 1,500 casualties, more than any other US regiment.
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A Hero’s Welcome
The Harlem Hellfighters returned stateside one year after landing in France. They traversed the Atlantic aboard another segregated ship. But unlike their initial departure, when few outside of the Black community marked the occasion, they returned to a hero’s welcome.
On February 17, 1919, tens of thousands of New Yorkers, Black and white, lined Fifth Avenue, from 23rd Street all the way to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue, to cheer the returning soldiers of the 369th. The crowd was more than a dozen deep in some places. The infantrymen marched 16 abreast, in a French formation, as the regimental band played French marching songs infused with the unit’s trademark jazz.
The wounded paraded, too, some riding in convertible transports. Among them was Private Henry Johnson, the French medal winner, whose heroics in the trenches made him one of the war’s most famous soldiers. He bowed to the cheering crowd as he rode by, having performed his duty, having served his country, having demonstrated his manhood.
Reasserting White Supremacy
As the parade wound its way up New York’s most famous boulevard, it was as if white Americans had finally closed ranks around African Americans. Perhaps now they would be open to addressing African Americans’ “special grievances”.
But it wasn’t to be. The moment lasted only as long as the parade. That year, city streets from Charleston, South Carolina, to Chicago, Illinois, ran red with the blood of African Americans as raging white mobs, determined to reassert white supremacy, attacked and killed Black men, women, and children indiscriminately. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars; it wasn’t. It was supposed to make the world safe for democracy; it didn’t. It was supposed to advance the struggle for African American freedom and equality; it didn’t do that either.
What it did do was expose as untrue one of the leading myths about racial progress: that displays of courage and valor in service to the nation would change the hearts and minds of those who believed in white supremacy. As it turned out, patriotism was not enough to end racial discrimination; agitation was necessary. W. E. B. Du Bois had been wrong, and he knew it.
In May 1919, one month before the Allied powers and Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles, officially ending World War I, Du Bois penned another editorial in the Crisis magazine. In this one, titled “Returning Soldiers”, he did not repudiate his prewar plea for African Americans to set aside their “special grievances“ and focus on winning the war; that would come many years later. But he did declare that now that the Great War had been won, African Americans, who had “fought gladly and to the last drop of blood” to make the world safe for democracy, fully intended to “fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land”.
“We return,” he wrote. “We return from fighting. We return fighting.”
Common Questions about the Harlem Hellfighters
Once they were in the theater of war, white field commanders assigned Black troops to the Army Service Forces to perform labor-intensive tasks such as unloading supplies from ships.
General Pershing reassigned African American infantry regiments from the 93rd Division to the French army.
The Harlem hellfighters’ heroism earned them the Croix de Guerre, the French medal for heroism in battle—the highest award the French bestowed on Allied troops.