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.

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