Though they spent more continuous time in battle than any other American regiment of World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters never got the recognition or respect that they deserved.
To soldiers fighting in World War I, the front lines were hell on Earth. But one American regiment fought hellfire with hellfire. Dubbed the “Harlem Hellfighters” by their terrified German foes, this all-Black group of soldiers proved their mettle on the battlefield despite overcoming extraordinary obstacles.
The Hellfighters, officially the 369th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard, fearlessly fought the Germans for longer than any other American unit. Before long, stories of their bravery quickly spread around the globe.
But the Hellfighters never truly got their due — and had to fight much more than the enemy in the trenches. From the beginning, they faced racial discrimination from their own country, which did nothing to let up even after they returned home as heroes at war’s end.
For decades after the war, their valiant efforts went all but overlooked. Only in recent years have the Harlem Hellfighters begun to earn their rightful place in history.
How The Harlem Hellfighters Were Formed
Before they became the Harlem Hellfighters, they were the 15th New York National Guard Regiment — a rare all-Black unit.
New York’s governor, Charles Whitman, had bowed to pressure from Black political leaders to create the unit in 1916. It included men from all walks of life like Melville Miller, who was just 16, and Henry Johnson, whose bravery would later distinguish him on the battlefield.
They were led by William Hayward, a white former Nebraska National Guard colonel who’d managed Whitman’s campaign. Hayward advocated for his unit. He hired both Black and white officers. And he told the white officers that if they “intended to take a narrower attitude, [they] had better stay out.”
But the men of the 15th New York National Guard were treated differently than other National Guard units. New York’s Guard headquarters didn’t send them uniforms or weapons to train with. So, the men wore civilian clothing and practiced with broomsticks.
Other Black people faced similar treatment. Although 2.3 million Black men registered for the draft, only the U.S. Army accepted large numbers.
Indeed, some Black leaders didn’t see why they should fight for a country that treated them unequally. When President Woodrow Wilson called on the country to make the world safe for democracy, many pointed to the dangers facing Black Americans at home.
“Will someone tell us just how long Mr. Wilson has been a convert to TRUE DEMOCRACY?” one African-American paper demanded.
But the men of the 15th were determined to fight for their country. They just had to overcome one more challenge — basic training in the Deep South.
Training For War As Black Servicemen In The Deep South
Before they could serve their country in Europe, the Harlem Hellfighters had to go to Spartanburg, South Carolina. There, Hayward ordered his troops to face racism with “fortitude and without retaliation.”
But Hayward worried about Spartanburg — and for good reason. The mayor of the town had openly declared that:
“If any of those colored soldiers go in any of our soda stores and the like and ask to be served, they’ll be knocked down. We have our customs down here, and we aren’t going to alter them.”
Despite the fact that the soldiers were preparing to defend their country, they endured racial taunts and physical violence from their countrymen.
“There had been all kind of insults hurled at our body who were on duty in town,” recalled regiment musician Noble Sissle in his memoir. “Our boys had some pretty bitter pills to swallow.”
Still, after Hayward flew to Washington D.C. and begged Army authorities to let his men deploy — and get out of Spartanburg — the Harlem Hellfighters left town without any major incidents.
In fact, the experience had bonded the men.
“As a direct result of such repeated confrontations (not despite them), a bond was forged among the men of the 15th, a fighting spirit they hoped would serve them well when they got to France,” explained Peter N. Nelson, who wrote a history of the Harlem Hellfighters called A More Unbending Battle.
They set off for Europe in January 1918 as the 369th Infantry Regiment. But they called themselves the “Black Rattlers” — and they’d soon be known as the Harlem Hellfighters.
The Harlem Hellfighters’ Heroics On The Battlefield In Europe
At first, the Harlem Hellfighters were constrained to menial tasks routinely doled out to Black soldiers. But Hayward lobbied General John Pershing to let his men fight. And Pershing eventually relented — though only because the French and British were demanding more American soldiers.
“A fairy tale has materialized,” Hayward wrote. “We are now a combat unit… Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”
Under the command of the French, the 369th leaped into the fray on April 15, 1918, far earlier than other American troops. It didn’t take them long to prove themselves.
Two soldiers in particular — Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts — showed what the Harlem Hellfighters were capable of.
On May 15, 1918, Johnson and Roberts were defending a lookout post when a German unit came surging over the trenches. Outnumbered, outgunned, they nevertheless managed to repel the German attack — killing four of the 24 Germans.
A few days later, the French awarded them the prestigious Croix de Guerre, and stories of their heroism spread around the world.
“Two New York Negro Soldiers Foil German Assault,” trumpeted the New York World.
Johnson and Robert had done more than repel an attack — they’d proven that Black soldiers were just as fierce as white ones. Even the French — who’d had their own racist doubts about the unit — were awed by their bravery.
As Hayward satisfactorily put it: “It was in this way the Germans found the Black Americans.”
In all, the Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days in combat — longer than any other American unit. During that time, they never retreated and none of them were ever captured. But the Hellfighters paid a hefty price, too. In the course of the war, more than half of the original unit had been killed or wounded.
Still, they viewed their service with pride and patriotism.
“Everybody’s head [was] high,” said Miller later, as he recalled a march through German-occupied territory. “And we were all proud to be Americans, proud to be black, and proud to be in the 15th New York Infantry.”
After the end of the war in November 1918, the Harlem Hellfighters prepared to return home.
The 369th Infantry Regiment Returns Home To Both Celebration And Injustice
When the Harlem Hellfighters had left for battle in 1917, they had not been invited to participate in the city’s farewell parade — known as the “Rainbow Division.” At the time, Hayward had been told that “black is not a color in the Rainbow.”
“Damn their going-away parade!” Hayward snapped. “We’ll have a parade of our own when we come back — those of us who do come home — and it will be a parade that will make history.”
Indeed, the Harlem Hellfighters’ homecoming parade would be one for the history books.
On Feb. 17, 1919, they triumphantly returned to New York City. As the 3,000 veterans marched through along 5th Avenue, they were cheered on by incredible crowds — papers guessed that somewhere between a few hundred thousand and five million people showed up.
“Up the wide avenue they swung. Their smiles outshone the golden sunlight. In every line proud chests expanded beneath the medals valor had won,” the New York Tribune wrote of the event.
“The impassioned cheering of the crowds massed along the way drowned the blaring cadence of their former jazz band. The old 15th was on parade and New York turned out to tender its dark-skinned heroes a New York welcome.”
Henry Johnson, called “one of the five bravest Americans” by former president Theodore Roosevelt, sat in a convertible holding a bouquet of flowers. Although he was wounded, Johnson stood to greet the roaring crowds.
But the party didn’t really start until the Hellfighters reached Harlem. As the Tribune noted, “The greeting the regiment received along Fifth Avenue was to the tumult which greeted it in Harlem as the west wind to a tornado.”
There, the Hellfighters were cheered on by family and friends, who also mourned and celebrated the men who hadn’t made it home. The Hellfighters had fought longer than any other regiment. And they’d lost more men, too. By the end of the war, they suffered 1,400 casualties.
The Historic Legacy Of The Harlem Hellfighters
As war faded back into peace, the Harlem Hellfighters left their mark. Called the “Men of Bronze” by the grateful French, their bravery made waves across the world.
For another, they had brought jazz music to the astounded and delighted Europeans. James Reese Europe, their band leader, remarked after a performance in France that:
“Everywhere we gave a concert, it was a riot. We played to 50,000 people [at the Tuileries], at least, and had we wished it, we might be playing yet.”
But many Hellfighters — and other Black Americans — were frustrated at how little their bravery abroad had changed things at home. Their jubilant return marked a dark truth. Not much had changed. Indeed, many white people feared that, after serving in the military, Black Americans would demand more rights.
A white speaker in New Orleans told a Black crowd:
“You [Blacks] are wondering how you are going to be treated after the war. Well, I’ll tell you, you are going to be treated exactly like you were before the war. This is a white man’s country, and we expect to rule it.”
That summer, terrible race riots tore through the country. The so-called “Red Summer of 1919” killed hundreds. And even Johnson — a war hero — struggled to adjust to civilian life. After accusing white soldiers of racism and cowardice, Johnson dropped out of the public eye and died 10 years later, of an enlarged heart.
However, the Harlem Hellfighters — their bravery, their service, and their dignity in the face of racism — have received an overdue second look in recent years.
In 1996, President Bill Clinton finally awarded Johnson and Roberts Purple Hearts, and in 2015 President Barack Obama awarded Henry Johnson the nation’s highest commendation: the Medal of Honor.
“We can do our best to make it right,” Obama said.
And as he stood in the White House, the United States’ first Black president reminded the crowd: “It’s never too late to say thank you.”
After learning about the history of the Harlem Hellfighters, see 31 harrowing images from the trenches in this collection of World War I photos. Then, read up on more Black heroes whose extraordinary efforts went largely overlooked.