At the time of World War I, the American military was heavily segregated, with prejudice that African American men would not do well in defending the country. Those African Americans who wanted to enlist and fight for their country had to go through so much before they were finally allowed to register and serve. The military and the federal workforce had been desegregated to a certain extent, especially in the navy which had black enlisted sailors going back to the American Revolution, but the election of Woodrow Wilson(D) in 1912 reimposed strict segregation on the military and federal employees, reversing many of the gains made since the end of the Civil War.

At the beginning of WWI, the United States under President Woodrow Wilson declared that their country would remain neutral. However, this changed when the German U-boat began to attack passenger ships and ocean liners, including the British Lusitania. The breaking point was when they found out that the Germans were proposing an alliance with Mexico to include Mexico invading the United States to capture California, New Mexico, and other western states. And so, when the US declared war on Germany in 1917, the War Department decided to accept black Americans in the draft as they needed a lot of troops. With that, the registration was flooded with 2 million new recruits.

Backbreaker Support Services

Of those new recruits, 375,000 were African Americans. Although 200,000 of them were transported overseas in the war, the majority of them did not see active combat duty. Instead, they worked in labor duties of support roles like unloading ships, constructing roads, buildings, and erecting latrines. They were barred from the Marines and could only serve in menial roles in the Navy, and none of them were ever allowed in the aviation units.

The government did not also provide military training for black officers. Soon, segregated training camps were created for that purpose. The dishearted black Americans protested against the unbelievable discrimination they were receiving, even though they only wanted to be part of those who stood for their country. Regardless, Fort Des Moines in Iowa still became one of the segregated camps where 600 blacks were commissioned as captains and lieutenants at the camp.

It was not until early 1918 when a regiment of African-American combat troops arrived to help the French Army, the 369th Infantry Regiment.

The Harlem Hellfighters

15th Regiment New York Infantry, at Camp Whitman, near Poughkeepsie, New York, 1917
15th Regiment New York Infantry, at Camp Whitman, near Poughkeepsie, New York, 1917. (US Federal Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It is formally known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment and informally labeled as the Harlem Hellfighters because they “never lost a man through capture, lost a trench or a foot of ground to the enemy.”

The 15th New York Regiment was founded on June 2, 1913. Although it was not formally organized until June 1916, when New York Governor Charles Whitman assigned a white attorney and former Nebraska National Guard colonel William Hayward as the regiment’s commanding officer. Hayward took the job seriously and saw to it that the other white officers would “meet men according to their rank as soldiers” and gave a warning to anyone who felt the need to “take a narrower attitude” to leave his regiment alone.

The regiment learned basic military practices while at Camp Whitman— military courtesy, addressing officers correctly, and saluting properly. They also learned how to stay low and out of enemy sights during attacks, stand guard and march in proper formation. After then, they were finally called into active duty in New York, where the Harlem Hellfighters were split into three battalions assigned to guard rail lines, construction sites, and other camps throughout New York.

Their active duty still did not spare them from racism. On October 8, 1917, the 369th Infantry Regiment traveled to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to receive training in actual combat, as the camp was set up similar to the battlefields in France. While there, two soldiers, Lieutenant James Reese Europe and Noble Sissle were refused service from a shop owner when they attempted to buy a newspaper. The 27th Division, comprised of white troops, came to aid their fellow. As they said, “They’re our buddies. And we won’t buy from men who treat them unfairly.”

The Harlem Hellfighters were also denied the opportunity to march for a farewell parade down Fifth Avenue in New York. This was given to divisions that were about to be shipped overseas. Hayward fought for his unit to be included with the 42nd Division during the march, called the “Rainbow Division.” His request was dismissed with, “black is not a color of the rainbow.”

Arriving in the French Soil

By December 1917, the 15th Regiment arrived in the port of Brest in France. The French and British Forces were asking for reinforcements from the Americans. The commander of the American Expeditionary Force, John Pershing, refused for his army to be broken up and sent to the Allies bit by bit. Of course, he didn’t have the same feeling for the 369th, who he willingly handed over to the French. As if that was not enough, they even sent a memo to the 16th Division of the French Army, highlighting the Harlem Hellfighters as inferiors.

The French, however, were not too interested in the racial cards that the Americans were playing and welcomed the 369th with open arms. They immediately provided them with equipment and weapons before sending them to the front line of the trenches, where they spent 191 days of active combat duty.

One of the Harlem Hellfighters, Henry Johnson, once fought twenty Germans by himself and earned the moniker “Black Death.” The Germans gave them the moniker “Höllenkämpfer” or Hellfighters as they developed their fearsome reputation among their adversaries.

Troops of the American 369th Infantry Regiment (the Harlem Hellfighters/Black Rattlers), 93rd Infantry Division, Maffrecourt. (American official photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

They also saw actions at the second Battle of the Marne, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. When the war ended, they returned to the US in February 1919 to a hero’s welcome, finally getting the parade they deserved on Fifth Avenue. This time, with crowds cheering them on.

About 1,300 Hellfighters didn’t make it back, and the celebration didn’t last long as their courage still was not enough to change the people’s perceptions of the African Americans.

For many, they played an important role in American history. As the historian and Senior Researcher at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Christopher Moore said, “In WWI, they helped to establish to the entire world the power of black soldiers in the military.”