WWI's Harlem Hellfighters Who Cut Down Germans and Gave France Jazz
What the 369th had that set it apart was strong leadership by black officers as well as white— and the best damned band in the American Army.
PARIS—A classic study published in the 1970s, a tragic history of great hopes, great courage, brutal segregation, daily humiliations, and enduring, embittering disappointments bears the damning title, The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I. It's about 370,000 men “who labored, fought, and died to make the world safe for a democracy that refused them equal citizenship at home.” Indeed, they were fighting for a nation where lynchings were an all too common way of death.
But there was one National Guard regiment, first known as the 15th New York, then the 369th Infantry attached to the French Army, and ultimately, “The Harlem Hellfighters,” that made its own very special history, and by the end of the Great War was anything but “unknown.”
The men of the 369th had something nobody else could come close to matching, a unit so talented that it was able at times to cut through some of the bigotry that surrounded them, and eventually win the regiment’s soldiers a place in the front lines—win them the chance to fight, to test their mettle against the massed forces of the Germans. And they did so with such distinction that the regiment and many of the soldiers in it were awarded one of the French military’s high honors, the Croix de Guerre.