100 years after WWI, all-Black unit Harlem Hellfighters awarded Congressional Gold Medal

Posted On Wed, September 1, 2021 By

Posted On Wed, September 1, 2021 By In City Living, Harlem, History

New York’s famous 369th (Old 15th) Infantry Regiment arrives home from France. From the National Archives via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most decorated all-Black American regiments is finally getting nationally recognized more than a century after World War I. President Joe Biden last week signed into law the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act, which posthumously honors the 369th Infantry Regiment. Made up mostly of New Yorkers, the Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days on the front-line trenches, longer than any other American unit. Despite their courage and sacrifice, the soldiers returned home to face racism and discrimination.

The 15th Infantry in France; From the National Archives on Wikimedia

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Suozzi, who represents parts of Long Island and Queens, and co-sponsored by New York Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Adriano Espaillat, among several others, the legislation was introduced in May and signed by Biden on August 25.

“It is never too late to do the right thing,” Suozzi said in a statement following the Oval Office signing ceremony.

“Awarding the Harlem Hellfighters the Congressional Gold Medal ensures that generations of Americans will now fully comprehend the selfless service, sacrifices, and heroism displayed by these men in spite of the pervasive racism and segregation of the times.”

In 1916, after years of advocacy by civic leaders in Harlem, Governor Charles Whitman formed the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, which became the 369th Infantry Regiment. According to Smithsonian Magazine, most of the Hellfighters hailed from Harlem, many of them “porters, doormen, or elevator operators, some teachers, night watchmen or mailmen.”

During the first three months of their service in France, the Hellfighters shoveled dams and built hospitals. In March 1918, the United States Army reassigned the 369th infantry regiment to the French Army. This was a politically convenient move, as 6sqft previously noted. The French needed reinforcements and reassigning the African American unit maintained a segregated Army. White U.S. soldiers refused to serve alongside Black soldiers.

The regiment entered the front line about a month before soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force fought their first major battle. The Hellfighters not only fought longer than any other American servicemen, but they also suffered more losses than any other American regiment, with more than 1,400 casualties.

On May 15, 1918, regiment members Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts successfully fought off two dozen German soldiers, although they were stabbed and shot multiple times. Soon after, Johnson and Roberts became the first Americans to be awarded the Croix de Guerre. The French government also awarded the military decoration to 171 members of the regiment, along with 11 citations.

Victory Parade for the 369th marches up Fifth Avenue, February 1919, seen here at 42nd Street. From the National Archives via Wikimedia Commons (cropped)

Harlem school children and other well-wishers gather along the victory parade route to greet the returning Hellfighters, from the National Archives via Wikimedia Commons

While the Hellfighters were barred from participating in New York’s farewell parade before heading to Europe because they were Black, upon their return, thousands of New Yorkers celebrated the regiment with a victory parade. On February 17, 1919, 3,000 Harlem Hellfighters heroes marched from 23rd Street and 5th Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue.

Despite this victory parade, the Hellfighters and their heroism went largely forgotten in the United States until recently. In 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Sgt. Henry Johnson the Medal of Honor.

Only two other Congressional Gold Medals have been awarded to African American military groups: the Tuskegee Airmen and the Montfort Point Marines, both that served during World War II.


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