The Story of the Harlem Hellfighters, Part One

369th 15th New York

(Eight men of the 396th Regiment in World War I decorated with the Croix de Guerre)

Recently, I read an excellent book called A More Unbending War about the lives of the Harlem Hellfighters during World War One (第一次世界大戦, daiichiji sekai daisen in Japanese for the curious). The Harlem Hellfighters were a group of Black-American and Puerto-Rican soldiers who became some of the most famous and successful American troops of that war, but were ignored and treated poorly at home both before and after the War. I can’t recommend this book enough; it was really eye-opening and fascinating. Coincidentally 2014 is the 100th year anniversary of the start of World War One, so I guess this post is fitting.

I originally wrote this as a single post, but it was much too long, so I decided to break it up into 3 posts over a week, so people would have time to appreciate their story.

The US joined World War One late after Britain, France and Belgium had fought Germany for years and had lost hundreds of thousands of men already. The Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Verdun, the Five Battles of Ypres, the Battle of the Aisne and so on had killed countless, countless men on both sides, but neither the Allies (Britain, France and Belgium) nor the Germans had made much progress. The problem with World War I was that military technology had greatly advanced, but the strategy hadn’t

Soldiers in World War One had to fight against artillery, chemical weapons like phosgene, mustard gas and chlorine gas, white phosphorus, machine guns and so on.

Sargent, John Singer (RA) - Gassed - Google Art Project

But there was no effective strategy to stop these weapons, so oftentimes, soldiers had to simply charge through “no man’s land” to the other side, kill as many enemies as they could, and hope they don’t get shot or “gassed” or obliterated by mortar in the process:

Morning a Passchendaele. Frank Hurley

Three years of fighting like this had totally exhausted the Allies, but then the United States entered the war and started sending troops to France to assist. Among the first troops were the 369th Infantry, also known as the 15th New York National Guard.

Origins of the 369th Infantry

Even though slavery had ended in the 1860’s, the United States soon implemented the Jim Crow Laws in the South1 which created a “separate, but equal” system. The idea was to make Blacks and Whites equal in US Law, but live separately. However, this system quickly broke down, and Blacks lost many rights, and lived in poorer conditions. Black schools were inferior to White schools, Blacks had fewer opportunities than Whites, and Blacks even had a separate baseball league: the Negro League. Black men were also not allowed to date, or even flirt with a White woman. If they did anything wrong, Blacks were punished more harshly by Whites for the same crime. Sometimes they were even lynched (the police never stopped this).

Even in the military, Blacks were not trusted to be soldiers, so they were usually put into “colored units” and given less respectable jobs: carrying supplies, digging trenches, etc. Brigadier-General Lytle Brown wrote about “colored” (non-white) soldiers in the military:

A large proportion of these colored men are ignorant, illiterate, day labor classes. A great many of them are of inferior physical stamina and would not hold up under the conditions of strenuous field service and could not withstand the rigors of the damp cold winter in France. The percentage of sickness among them has been very high, particularly of venereal diseases. (pg 25)

This view seems horrible now, but it was very common among White-Americans 100 years ago. This was part of the popular idea at the time called scientific-racism, which tried to use science to prove that different races had evolved differently. Naturally Europeans, especially Anglo-Saxons, were considered the most “evolved” since the theory was originally composed by Europeans.2

However, in the summer of 1916 a lawyer in New York named William Hayward organized a new military unit called the 15th New York National Guard. The 15th was a mix of Whites and Blacks, but was a mostly Black unit. Hayward drew talent from Harlem, the famous Black neighborhood in New York, including some famous musicians like James Reese Europe (also called “Jim Europe”) and Noble Sissle. Another man who joined was Spotswood Pole, one of the most famous Negro-League baseball players. Many Black-Americans joined the military at this time because they believed that if they fought and proved their loyalty to the United States, they would gain respect and more rights as American Citizens.

In our next post, we’ll look at how the 15th National Guard prepared for war and fought in the trenches of World War I.

1 Although northern states didn’t have the Jim Crow Laws, they still informally discriminated against Black-Americans the same way.

2 Ironically, Darwin had basically disproved this theory many years before in this lesser-known work: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It’s a strange book to read, but Darwin basically proves scientifically that Humans not only evolved from animals, but that Humans are basically the same as one another. Also, the notion of scientific-racism wasn’t limited to discriminating against Black Americans; other Europeans like Irish, Spanish or Eastern Europeans were considered less evolved too, and there were lots of half-baked theories to justfy this.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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