Photo credits: National Archives Catalog
In early 1919, a parade organized by James Reese Europe, featuring 1,200 Harlem Hellfighters and the Hellfighters band, marched up Fifth Avenue and all around New York City.
“If ever proof was required, which it is not, that the color of a man’s skin has nothing to do with the color of his spirit, these twain then and there supplied it in abundance,” wrote Irvin Cobb, a white southern journalist, of the historic regiment.
During these harrowing months on the front lines, the 369th Regiment’s members dubbed each other “the Black Rattlers,” while the Hellfighters were dubbed “The Men of Bronze” by the French.
The proud regiment ultimately got its moniker from the members’ German military foes: “The Harlem Hellfighters.”
When the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of New York embarked on a mission to “keep the globe safe for democracy,” they were men without rights at home or in the military. They may have been pardoned for being cynical in their service.
Instead, they were some of the most distinguished and outstanding American troops of the war. The troops eventually had a parade to honor their valor on February 17, 1919.
Festivities did not get off to a particularly promising start. The 369th was formed in a Harlem auditorium and moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina, to train. At that time, an all-black regiment had just arrived from Texas — where a lynching had sparked a fatal clash among residents and troops.
This culminated in the execution of thirteen black soldiers for rebelling.
Members of the 369th, who had been told to always turn back and stand down, were subjected to a barrage of indignities in Spartanburg, such as the denial of insignia and arms. Luckily, the regiment got rifles by impersonating a white private rifle club to whom the government had no trouble supplying weaponry.
However, on the route to Europe, the embarrassment continued. The Hellfighters’ leaky ship had to turn back after being refused a position in the farewell procession. The regiment was relegated exclusively to perform physical work in Europe.
Nonetheless, the Harlem Hellfighters finally got their break.