On a cold February afternoon in 1919, thousands of people gathered along New York’s Fifth Avenue and swayed to music provided by military band leader James Reese. They cheered and clapped as the 369th Infantry Regiment marched to the new musical rhythm that was sweeping Europe and America: jazz. The 369th referred to themselves as the “men of bronze,” but became better known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” because of their ferocity in battle. An all-black military unit, the regiment was under the command of mostly white officers. New York’s Union League, led by Col. William Hayward, organized the “Colored Regiments” of the Civil War.
The Harlem Hellfighters fought the Germans at the battles of Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thiery. They distinguished themselves in combat, serving more than 6 months on the front lines while suffering more than 1400 casualties. It was the first American unit to be awarded France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre. One hundred and seventy of its men were awarded individual medals, including two who personally won the Croix de Guerre.
World War I brought about a great many changes that had a lasting impact on America, such as initiating the great migration of blacks from the South to the North. This was also the time of the assimilation of black music and culture into mainstream American culture known as the Harlem Renaissance. Approximately 380,000 blacks served in World War I, and many lost their lives. However, the sacrifices they made, like the sacrifices they made in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, did not give African Americans the freedom to participate fully in a free democratic society.
This entry contributed by Curriculum Concepts International
The 369th Regiment Armory is located at One West 142nd Street. Across from the armory is a memorial to the Harlem Hellfighters. The black granite obelisk is a replica of one in France.
The 369th Regiment, or the “Harlem Hellfighters,” was the first African American regiment to fight in World War I. Their bravery in France won them that nation’s highest honor.