Harlem Hell Fighters: African-American Troops in World War I

One hundred years ago, on February 17, 1919, the African-American 369th Infantry Regiment, popularly known as the Harlem Hell Fighters, marched up Fifth Avenue into Harlem in a massive victory parade in their honor.

“New York’s ‘Hell Fighters,’ Men of the 369th Infantry,” The New York Times, Feb. 23, 1919, Rotogravure Picture Section 5.

“Hell Fighters” was the nickname the German enemy gave the 369th and the name stuck for good reason. They were among the first American troops to see action, fighting under French command, and Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were the first Americans awarded Croix de Guerre by the French government. The valor of the two men in battling and repulsing a German raiding party of at least two dozen soldiers on the night of May 14, 1918 was extolled in newspapers.

“Our Negro Doughboys Make Good – As Usual,” New York Tribune, May 26, 1918, Section III.

Favorable coverage of black soldiers in New York newspapers could be expected for members of the segregated former 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which had been federalized as the 369th. Johnson and Roberts were featured far beyond New York, though, from Washington, DC to Kansas City, Missouri to Tacoma, Washington, and elsewhere, in both general interest and African-American newspapers.

The 369th Infantry was also justly famous in America and Europe for its band. The military band, which Lieutenant James Reese Europe organized and led, introduced jazz to many French troops and civilians. The Kansas City Sun reported that “all Lyons now declares that it is the grandest band that ever visited here.”

“Band of the 15th New York Colored Infantry Waiting for the First Batch of Sammies to Arrive on Leave,” New York Tribune, March 24, 1918, Tribune Graphic.

The band members, made up of black and Puerto Rican musicians recruited by Lieut. Europe, not only played jazz, they also fought and suffered casualties alongside French troops. They dug trenches too, especially early on, when assigned to laboring duties, as were the vast majority of African-Americans soldiers in the segregated American Expeditionary Forces.

Beginning in April 1918, the 369th Infantry was assigned to the French Army, thus escaping some of the racism embedded in the American military. They fought fiercely at Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, and in the Champagne-Marne and Meuse-Argonne Offensives, suffering approximately 1,500 battle casualties overall. The French government awarded Croix de Guerre to 170 individual members and to the regiment as a whole.

“New York’s ‘Hell-Fighters’ March up the Avenue,” New York Tribune, Feb. 18, 1919.

Most of the surviving Harlem Hell Fighters marched miles on parade day, but the hero Henry Johnson, now a sergeant, stood while riding in a car, a metal plate in his foot. James Reese Europe managed to march, but to one side of his jazz-playing band, instead of conducting at its head.

The Harlem Hell Fighters and other returning African-American troops could well expect to be rewarded with a more just and inclusive America, as promoted in this Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicated article, published in multiple newspapers around the country, including Bismarck, ND (below), and Perth Amboy, NJ.

“American Negroes’ Glorious Fighting Record Gives Them Right to Benefits of Full Citizenship,” Bismarck Daily Tribune (Bismarck, ND), Aug. 9, 1918.

It did not turn out that way. Beyond the few parades, black veterans returned to pervasive Jim Crow laws and increased lynchings in the South, and extensive discrimination and de facto segregation in the North. Still, African-American activism grew with the First World War and its aftermath, and helped shape the modern civil rights movement.

Discover more:

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3 Comments

  1. Franklin McBeth
    March 28, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    Look for information for my History 300 class

  2. Charles Pool
    October 1, 2020 at 7:54 am

    An amazing story – especially their tenacity and determination to do their part for a country that treated them as ditch-diggers and raw muscle to unload ships. They were a complete National Guard unit, and they served more than honorably in some of the worst action of “the Great War”,

    Another amazing story – and I haven’t read Mr. McBeth’s History 300 class or even links to it – is of a Rockafeller Center’s Elevator Operator who was featured on The Today Show in the 1950’s. I believe he was the only African American on that stage or set that the camera ever saw.

    Eugene Bullard left the U.S.A. after experiencing the disturbing actions of racist Caucasians in GA, and made his way across England (as a boxer and in a minstrel act) and France. He was treated as a man in Paris, he lived as any man would, and he saw the danger to his adopted country when WWI broke out. He enlisted in 170th infantry, “The Swallows of Death”, was injured in heavy fighting (with the enemy) and while in the hospital recovering he decided to learn flying since he was too badly wounded for the infantry.

    Next to him in the hospital was a Frenchman who said join us in the flying corps – Eugene goes with him, learns to maintain the aircraft and slowly understand the art of flying. Taking lessons he learned to fly well enough that he eventually was accepted into the French Flying Corps and became the first successful black fighter pilot.

    After the war he returned to Paris and ran a jazz club, as WWII grew closer he even spied for the French during the 1930’s. 1n 1940’s, he put his WWI uniform on and rejoins the French Army, is wounded again on the lines, and at this point, he made his way to the coast (with his daughters) to secure an American Passport and returned to the U.S.A.

    His story is similar to the Harlem Hell Fighters – they received their nickname while in France. They fought like men possessed when in combat and the stories of bravery are too numerous to mention. When he returned to the U.S., he became an elevator operator, I won’t link to the Today Show episode, but here are two great youtube videos.
    .
    The first is from a U.S. General – the second is from “The History Guy”. I believe many African Americans, esp. Marine Pilots who know of Mr. Bullard – consider him their predecessor in taking the war to the enemy as a proud African American.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQCiNe8VGzs

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84yGPsehrkc

  3. Charles Pool
    October 1, 2020 at 9:01 am

    An amazing story – especially their tenacity and determination to do their part for a country that treated them as ditch-diggers and raw muscle to unload ships. They were a capable, complete, already formed National Guard unit, and once activated they served more than honorably in some of the worst action of “the Great War”,

    A Georgia man who fled lethal racism in America but returned during WWII (after doing more than his share), to become a Rockafeller Center’s Elevator Operator and was featured on The Today Show in the 1950’s, was Mr. Eugene Bullard. I believe he was the only African American on that stage or set that the camera ever saw.

    Eugene left the U.S.A. on a German ‘Tramp’ steamer to Scotland, and made his way across England (as a boxer and in a minstrel act) and finally to France. He was treated as a man in Paris, he lived as any man would, and he saw the danger to his adopted country when WWI broke out. He enlisted in 170th infantry, “The Swallows of Death”, was injured in heavy fighting (battle of Verdun) and while in the hospital recovering he decided to learn flying since he was too badly wounded to return to the infantry.

    Next to him in the hospital was a Frenchman who said join us in the flying corps – Eugene went with him, learns to maintain the aircraft and slowly understand the art of flying. He learned to fly well enough that he was accepted into the French Flying Corps and became the first successful black fighter pilot.

    After the war he returned to Paris eventually opening a jazz club. As WWII grew closer he even spied for the French during the 1930’s using his German, English, & French skills on “vacationing” Germans. When war came, he put his WWI uniform on and rejoined the French Army, was wounded again on the lines, and at this point, he made his way to the coast (with his daughters) to secure an American Passport and returned to the U.S.A.

    His story is similar to the Harlem Hell Fighters – they received their nickname while in France. They fought like men possessed when in combat and the stories of bravery are too numerous to mention. When he returned to the U.S. he found some respect, but not improved opportunities. He became an elevator operato, a menial position, and this man who knew (and served) some of the literary & jazz greats of the 1930’s again became a deferential servant. I won’t link to the Today Show episode, but here are two great youtube videos.
    .
    The first is from a U.S. General – the second is from “The History Guy”. I believe many African Americans, esp. Marine Pilots who know of Mr. Bullard – consider him their predecessor in taking the war to the enemy as a proud African American

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQCiNe8VGzs

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=84yGPsehrkc

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