The years leading up to America's entry into the war were brutally racist.
at few people know about the 369th Men of Bronze and the other black volunteer regiments of World War I, is that they had to fight to serve their country – as well as fight for it.
The years leading up to America's entry into the war were brutally racist. In 1915, D.W. Griffiths produced his white supremacist film, "Birth of a Nation." The following year 51 lynchings were recorded.
Black leaders were split on whether volunteering to fight would be good for African Americans. Writer W.E.B. Dubois and preacher Adam Clayton Powell supported volunteering. Publisher A. Phillip Randolph opposed it. But, after early jazz-age heroes, such as Noble Sissel, James Reese Europe and Eubie Blake signed up, dozens of young black men followed – plenty of them under age.
In training, the Harlem Hellfighters were denied rifles, ammunition and a base. So they practiced with wooden rifles and broomsticks in Central Park and Morningside Park. Sent to Spartanburg, S.C., to prepare for battle, some soldiers – including the band leader Noble Sissel-- were assaulted by locals. Afraid that a deadly race war would erupt, as it had in Houston earlier that year, officers urged the men to endure provocation without retaliating. They did.
Then, preparing to leave for Europe at Camp Mills, N.J., Captain Fish, heard that some Alabaman soldiers who had beaten one black soldier and abused others, were planning to attack the Hellfighters that night. He issued ammunition and told the men to fire if they were fired upon. Then he marched over to the camp of the hostile regiment, taking with him George "Kid" Cotton, a 6 ft 6, 260 lb private, who offered to fight any two of the Alabaman troops, while Fish offered to fight any of their officers. The offer was not taken up.
When the Hellfighters reached France in January 1918, James Europe and the regiment's band – which had added many well-known musicians, including the great Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández Marín -- toured for two months, entertaining troops and civilians.
"They had the best regimental band in the country," says Commissioner Fish. "That's not just my opinion – they won every contest they entered."
The tour ignited France's longstanding love affair with ragtime and jazz, a connection that would make Paris a magnet for black artists and musicians for the next 20 years.
The men of the 369th wanted to fight, but found that black troops were being pressed into laboring and construction jobs or working in the docks as stevedores. Why? White American troops simply would not fight shoulder to shoulder with black troops. And the American military command was not about to push the issue.
But the French military included troops of many races and colors, fighters from Senegal, Morocco, Algeria. And they needed soldiers to fight in the trenches on the front lines of the war. So the 369th was assigned to fight under French command and sent forward to the Champagne- Marne front. The Harlem Hellfighters marched to battle under French command carrying the state flag of New York.
The Skanner News Medal of Honor series
Documents supporting Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson's Medal of Honor Bid