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It's Time We Remember the Harlem Hellfighters

The 369th in action. After being detached and seconded to the French, they wore the Adrian helmet, while retaining the rest of their U.S. uniform. Seen here at Séchault, France on 29 September 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, they wear the U.S. Army-issue Brodie helmet, correct for that time. (Wikipedia)

Over the past two years as a proud black veteran and journalist I have tried to come to terms with this: the commander-in-chief of our Armed Forces is a “bone spur” draft-dodging, self-proclaimed sexual assaulter who is unabashedly sympathetic to white supremacists and neo-Nazis. This President of the United States of America catapulted himself into office insulting and demonizing black and brown people; now calls the free press “the enemy of the people,” and continually assaults and undermines constitutional norms and the rule of law. Really hard to accept. 

But on closer reflection, had I been a patriotic young black man in Harlem in the same time period one hundred years ago, what I would have faced then could well have been equally if not more distressing: the worst period, the actual nadir of race relations in the country since the halcyon days of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. A President, Woodrow Wilson, so racist he was quoted at least three times in D W Griffith’s lavish film paean to the Ku Klux Klan, Birth of A Nation. A President so in love with the KKK and the Confederacy’s Lost Cause he made Birth of A Nation the first film ever screened at the White House. A President so reluctant about possibly “depleting the white race” he hesitated to commit the US to the defense of democracy and the free world in the First World War, but also reluctantly allowed blacks to be drafted into a segregated US Army for possible service in that war. 

But, as with other young men of the times, as a young, adventurous resident of Harlem, I would no doubt have been equally caught up in the fervor of patriotically doing my duty, not just for my country, but for my race. Seem strange? Not really. That’s what we’ve done from our earliest days in this land and in this village, which our ancestors built back in 1658. And the men who came to comprise the 369th Infantry Regiment—those Harlem Hellfighters—were no exception. 

  But If one meanders eastward on 125th Street across Third Avenue towards the East River, you’ll run into where the East River (FDR) Drive feeds northward into the Harlem River Drive as it flows past the Manhattan entrance to the Triborough (now Robert F Kennedy) Bridge. Flautist Bobbi Humphrey’s sinuous, sensuously-lilting performance of her composition of the same name on her 1973 Blacks and Blues album beautifully captures that feeling of top-down, breezy, carefree coursing along those slowly winding curves of the western shore of the Harlem River as one heads further uptown. Officially opened for auto traffic in 1964—thirty years after the FDR Drive—it has now been renamed the 369th Harlem Hellfighters Drive. Aptly so. The huge, almost hundred-year-old landmarked 369th Regiment Armory sits at the very northern end of Fifth Avenue just at the southbound 142nd Street to that Harlem River/369th Harlem Hellfighters Drive. It’s of course the home of those truly legendary Black Rattlers—another colorful nickname they actually gave themselves. 

It’s safe to say that the Tuskegee Airmen have finally begun to get their justly deserved praise and honor for their exploits against the Germans in WWII. On the other hand, the Harlem Hellfighters have yet to get theirs for equally extraordinary valor—against the Germans—in WWI, the so-called Great War or “War to end all Wars.” As we delineated in our historical documentary series on the legacy of the New York African Burial Ground “Then I’ll Be Free To Travel Home, blacks, though often conflicted and sometimes not necessarily in their own best interest, always fought in defense of life, freedom, property, and the general welfare in whatever communities they found themselves. They did it with and for the Dutch against Native Americans in the 1600s; with the Patriots when they revolted against the English in the late 1700s; with the newly formed nation, again against the British, in the War of 1812; with the North against the South to put an end to slavery and preserve the Union. Always with demonstrated ability, valor and loyalty. One would think that by the outbreak of the First World War, their courage, skill and loyalty would no longer be an issue. Not quite. 

Shipped over to France as the 15th Infantry Regiment in December of 1917, they were assigned, not to combat duty, but as a “manual labor force.” By the Spring of 1918 the unit had been re-designated the 369th Regiment and assigned to the French Army, simply because of the regiment’s race.

Why? The white American Expeditionary Forces commanders and their troops considered them inferior and were unwilling to have the all-black—Black Puerto Ricans included—369th serve with them. Fortunately the regiment’s white commander, New Yorker William Hayward, reportedly had nothing but the greatest respect for the troops under his command. He definitely did not share the racist beliefs of the other American Expeditionary Forces “top brass.” But their racial animosity toward Hayward’s men was so intense, they actually wrote and distributed an infamous pamphlet: “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops.” It labeled the men of the 369th as not only inferior, but also “warned” the French people about their supposed “rapist tendencies.” Without doubt a most dastardly propaganda pamphlet, put out, not by the German enemy, but by their very own American Expeditionary Forces. 

So one needs to understand some basic stuff here. White men in “uniform” acting as agents of the state, who fear and detest black men—want to see them as less than human—did not begin with 21st century police killing unarmed Black men and women. You need to know and understand not just the roots of the Black Lives Matter Movement, but the deeply ingrained roots of white supremacist thinking in this country. Start with the belief that you can own and hold another human being as your chattel-property; follow that with those Runaway Slave-Catcher Patrols and Blackbirders indiscriminately trying to kidnap and return escapees and free blacks “back” to Southern plantations; work your way forward through those Southern White Citizens Councils and their KKK-Knights of the White Camelias and other such “troupes” terrorizing black families after the post-Civil War short-lived-and-sabotaged Reconstruction experiment in black equality; right up through those bloody race riots in the “Red Summer” of 1919 when blacks stopped letting white mobs terrorize their communities and literally fought back, with guns; continue through those 20th century mobs-and-state-sponsored lynchings of blacks right up to Cook County States Attorney Edward Hanrahan and his “FBI-surrogate” cops executing Chicago Black Panther and Community Leader Fred Hampton in his bed in December of 1969, and unto this current rash of killings by “Men-and-Women in Blue” with badges. 

That is the history. That American Expeditionary Forces pamphlet denigrating and maligning the men of the 369th was just a part of that almost 400-year pattern of negative national anti-black racial animosity and death-dealing. The French? They ignored the pamphlet. They had no such racial hang-ups back then. After all, one of the greatest military men who helped secure their own revolution was none other than the legendary Black count, General Alex Dumas, son of a Haitian slave, father to the great novelist Alexandre Dumas, and the actual  “model” for such Dumas works as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The French happily welcomed the 369th as comrades-in-arms with outstretched open arms. Rightly so. 

From the 8th of May 1918 when they deployed into frontline trenches to the end of the war, the 369th spent no less than 191 days in battle. Not only did they record the longest deployment of any Unit in WWI—six months—they got their Hellfighters nickname from their German enemy combatants because of their ferocious tenacity in battle. The 369th never lost a foot of ground, and never had a man taken prisoner. Captured, yes, taken prisoner, absolutely not. Anyone the Germans caught was immediately snatched right back. An amazing record. Bill Miles, one of my long-time documentary filmmaking idols, used the Regiment’s own self-dubbed nickname—probably picked-up from their French comrades—Men of Bronze, as the title for his 1977 documentary that chronicled their remarkable achievements. Remarkable is an understatement. 

The first two Americans to receive the coveted French Croix de Guerre—Private Henry Johnson and Corporal Needham Roberts—were members of the 369th. Just about every high-profile WWI battle saw the Black Rattlers in action: Sechault; the Second Battle of the Marne; Belleau Wood; Chateau-Thierry; Champagne-Marne; Meuse-Argonne, and more. The 369th was the first Allied unit to reach and cross the Rhine River into Germany. By the war’s end, the regimen had its own French Croix de Guerre with Silver Star, and 171 of its members had exhibited such “extraordinary valor,” they’d been awarded either the Croix de Guerre or the Legion of Honor by the French. Not too shabby for a supposedly inferior regiment.

Now, the flip side of all that “in your (American Expeditionary Forces) face” derring-do: their unheralded but equally amazing musical legacy. I contend that Jazz—born in New Orleans, raised in Chicago and Kansas City, and fully nurtured to maturity in Harlem—is a global phenomenon thanks to the 369th. Not only did Master Musician James Reese Europe lead its outstanding marching band, he also formed small groups that played in local French clubs and cafes. The “new music” they played—Jazz—and how they played it, revolutionized the French musical canon. It naturally spread throughout Europe and beyond, and the rest is of course history.

On their triumphant return home, on February 17th 1919, they were the very first of the returning units to victoriously march down the streets of New York City. Had they worn all the French and American awards they’d earned—Croix de Guerre’sLegion of Honors, Distinguished Service Crosses, two Medals of Honor—they’d probably have looked like walking pin-cushions. Formidable pin-cushions. I can see them now, pictured in the old mind’s eye—or maybe from some sepia stereograph prints or old newsreel clips in Men of Bronze—heads high, shoulders squared, as they proudly stepped with military precision up Fifth Avenue. From somewhere south of 39th Street, with throngs of whites cheering them on, they paraded northwards to that 110th Street Harlem-demarcation line, then moved westward over to Lenox Avenue and again northwards through the center of their home village, where thousands of Harlemites, bursting with pride, joyously welcomed them home. 

These men and their Harlem neighbors expected the service that they and other black and brown military men had rendered in such an exemplary manner would change the discriminatory racial climate in their home country. As with similar past service, it did not. In the South, many of those Black veterans were shot or lynched while in uniform trying to exercise all their rights as free citizens. From that riotous “Red Summer” of 1919, North and South, right up to the start of WWII, the racial climate for blacks in this country went from merely terrible to the very pits of hell. And yet, that did not discourage these men or their descendants from battling at home, or on future wartime battlefronts, to change all that discriminatory crap. 

My own family-line picks up that thread after WWII with a through-line into the 21st Century. Uncle Norton—Panamanian immigrant, career-Army: Korean Conflict; yours truly, Regular USAF, navigator, almost eight years: Vietnam War; Nephew Mark—USAF Academy grad, 20-year service, aircraft commander: Desert Storm. And that’s just one black family. Think about the many thousands serving from the 1600s to the present. Serving by choice. Knowing it’s a flawed, often exclusionary country that only grudgingly accepts and values their effort. Knowing that despite its flaws, what those equally flawed Founding Fathers put on paper for the best interest of their white, male oligarchic few, “coulda, woulda, shoulda” and most definitely will-a be made applicable to everyone in the country. 

That Constitution we swore to uphold and defend “against all enemies foreign and domestic” when we signed-up and donned those uniforms is an amendable document. We will be as tenacious as those 369th Harlem Hellfighters in this never-ending battle for full citizenship, dignity and acknowledgement of our full humanity. Nothing less. 

My Uncle Norton passed before I could check with him, but my nephew Mark and I are in agreement: those young high school and college students (and though somewhat late, his NFL counterparts) who followed Colin Kaepernick’s protest example—taking a knee, or raising a clenched fist—definitely have our blessing and support. As did the men of the 369th, we’ve risked our lives on more than one occasion in actual combat/combat-support missions to loyally protect and defend the flag of our country. Note: our country. That flag—that Anthem—are simply visible symbols of the principles and laws on which the country is built, i.e. the Constitution. 

Loyalty is a two-way street. A reciprocal flow: you give it, you get it, you give it – and so it goes. Until the system the society that purports to honor that flag and that anthem and Constitution truly accords black, brown and other non-white people in this country full citizenship—more specifically, full and equal protection under the law – Kaepernick and any one else all have the right to peacefully protest when, where and how they see fit. Every right to signal that our “distress,” to put it mildly, is in need of immediate redress. My extended family fought to guarantee that right (at least one too clandestinely to be mentioned here). 

The men of the 369th fought for that right. They could and would easily sympathize with Kaepernick and the price he currently pays for publicly and symbolically still “kneeling” his truth to power: a bona fide Superbowl quarterback locked out of a job by monopolistic owners who intend to punish his audacity to challenge the wanton, unchecked, unpunished killings of predominantly black and brown and mostly young people by police and other law enforcement agents all across this country. I have no doubt those men of the 369th would adopt Colin Kaepernick as one of their own.

The 369th was and is a legendary “landmark” unit. The 369th Regiment Armory, the unit’s Harlem home, was indeed built to honor those loyal, patriotic WWI Black Rattlers. The first section was constructed between 1920 and1924. The red-brick Art Deco administrative complex was completed in 1933. Its two-acre size takes up more than half of the city block between Fifth Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue). It was landmarked by New York City in 1985 and placed on the National Registry of Historic Places in 1995. The Armory is home to not only the current iteration of the 369th Regiment: the 369th Sustainment Brigade of the New York Army National Guard, but also the 369th Historical Society and its Museum. The building is currently undergoing renovations, so the Society and its Museum Collection has been temporarily displaced. It would be shameful if the Society and its Collection of 369th Regiment artifacts and memorabilia are not returned to their Harlem home in that Armory once renovations are completed. 

Interestingly enough, I actually live in a landmark building that was once the Harlem home of W.C. Handy, sometimes referred to as the Father of the Blues. My onetime fifth floor neighbor Eleanor Wheatland, a longtime friend and/or fan of the great classical pianist Andre Watts became my oldest daughter Traci’s piano teacher. She also wrote the harmony for “And That Was Puerto Rico” one of the premier ballads in our Off-Off Broadway Musical “Sh-Boom!”which Rosetta LeNoire’s AMAS! Musical Repertory Theatre mounted in 1986. And here is a non-sequitur connection: Rosetta LeNoire was my real theatrical friend and mentor; Eubie Blake was her longtime theatrical friend and mentor; Noble Sissle was Mr. Blake’s longtime theatrical friend and collaborator (they co-wrote the 1921 blockbuster Broadway Musical “Shuffle Along”). Guess which military unit Noble Sissle served with during WWI? The 369th Harlem Hellfighters. 

Zero degrees of separation. That’s why I want those men and their exploits to be known, respected and properly honored. I truly feel connected to them. Hopefully this is a start.