The Legendary Harlem Hellfighters

Group of smiling Harlem Hellfighters in uniform with service medals, on deck of a ship, exuding camaraderie and pride upon return from WWI.
Some Harlem Hellfighters soldiers upon returning home for World War I.

Officially, they were named the 369th Infantry Regiment, a black American unit during World War I. But as the unit began fighting, the French and German armies both gave this regiment the same nickname. They called them the Harlem Hellfighters.

The U.S. at that time was still ripe with racism and segregation. That, however, didn’t stop tens of thousands of black American men from becoming combat soldiers in the war. The 369th Infantry Regiment first began as a New York National Guard unit, with many of its roughly few thousand members living in Harlem.

As the U.S. began preparing for entry into the war, they federalized this New York National Guard Unit. And that’s how they became the 369th Infantry Regiment. The group was sent to upstate New York for training.

But here, they experienced racism from locals, leading to rising tensions among the soldiers. The U.S. War Department debated on what to do. They had three choices: keep the soldiers in town and deal with the racism, move the soldiers to another U.S. city, but that would send a signal that harassment works, or send the soldiers abroad. The War Department chose the latter option, sending the regiment to France, where they joined the French Army, as the U.S. Army was segregated.

Throughout the war, the Harlem Hellfighters would distinguish themselves on the battlefield with remarkable bravery and endurance, spending more time in combat than any other American unit. No one from the regiment was ever captured, and the group, because of their leader’s perspective, never retreated. But many of the soldiers were killed. The achievements of the regiment earned them the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest military honor, and 171 members of the unit received medals of valor, among other awards.

Along with their might and significance on the battlefield, the Harlem Hellfighters also impacted European music culture through the regiment band led by the legendary James Reese Europe. A virtuoso musician and composer, James and the band are credited with introducing jazz to European audiences, leaving a lasting impact on the music scene. As a reviewer wrote about one performance,

“If I live to be 101, I shall never forget that second night, which was a night of a splendid, flawless full moon. We stood with the regimental staff on the terraced lawn of the chief house in a half-deserted town five miles back from the trenches, and down below us in the main street, the band played plantation airs and hundreds of Negro soldiers joined in and sang the words. Behind the masses of upturned dark faces was a ring of white ones where the remaining natives of the place clustered with their heads wagging in time to the tunes . . . . When they got to “Way Down Upon The Swanee River” I wanted to cry, and when the drum major [Sissle], who had a splendid baritone voice, sang, as an interpolated number, “Joan of Arc,” first in English and then in excellent French, the villagers openly cried; and an elderly peasant, heavily whiskered, with tears of joyous and thankful enthusiasm running down his bearded cheeks, was with difficulty restrained from throwing his arms about the soloist and kissing him.”

Upon the regiment’s return home, W.E.B. DuBois, one of the most prominent advocates for equality at the time, said,

“Make way for democracy. We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America or know the reason why. We return from fighting. We return fighting.”