Harlem’s historic 369th Armory, which was home to the Harlem Hell Fighters and is a symbol of the significant contribution of African-Americans in the Armed Services, is in danger of being lost.
Currently, there are plans to “remodel” the landmark facility and relocate its tenants, including the 369th Hell Fighters Museum, the Sergeant’s Association, the Veteran’s Association and the Harlem Youth Marines, for a minimum of three years. But renovation will mean a loss of the historic and unique interior of the building, which was designed exclusively in honor of the 369th–right down to the doorknobs. The Department of Military and Naval Affairs owns the building and is planning its renovation.
The Harlem Armory and the 369th Infantry Regiment is the only and largest standing African-American armory in the United States.
Distinguished two-star Gen. Nathaniel James, who runs the historical society at the Armory, leads the charge to preserve its interior history and urges the public to come out and learn more about this landmark treasure. James spoke with the Amsterdam News about the plans and his well-founded concerns for the preservation of its history.
“The 369th building itself is a monument to the deeds of the 369th from World War I. They built this building to honor them. The building is monogrammed and detailed for the 369th,” James told the AmNews.
“A number of famous people have been in this building. One of them was the first general, which was Theo Davis Sr. He was the commander here. He was on active duty and an army advisor when he was here in 1939. He was the first African-American to command the 369th. Adam Clayton Powell drilled here when he was in college. We had Clifford Alexander, who was the first African-American to be secretary of the Army,” he said.
“I am the first general to gain two stars in the New York Army National Guard and the first one who rose to be the commanding general of the New York National Guard. The historical society wants to keep the history of this unit. What we’re up against is that they want to tear the inside of the building apart. They never consulted people like me or anybody in the unit who knows what the building is all about. They have plans, but they won’t show anybody the plans, but what I get is that they will strip the building down to the bare walls and put in all new electrical lines and plumbing, which is a good thing that they should have been doing over the years but didn’t do.
“They have told the people who support the unit–like the Sergeants Association, the Veterans Association, the Historical Society and the Harlem Youth Marines, who are doing a tremendous job of getting kids off the streets and into a straight line–that they will have to move out. This building is really a community building. The state has not asked anybody in this building what they think about what they’re going to do to the building. The outside of the building is a landmark. They can’t do anything to the outside,” James said.
“In the building, there are a number of decor rooms. If they tear the building down, it’s going to take three to four years. Tenants like myself will have to move out by October 1 of this year. I have spoken to General James and he said by 2014 they expect everybody to be out. They will start demolition of the building and we’ll never get back in, that’s for sure. Also, they’re going to move the military unit.
“The 369th used to be a regiment, now it’s a brigade,” James continued. “A brigade would hold four or five regiments in it. The 369th, being the most decorated, has elevated itself to brigade status, which it should be. When they move this unit, they’re going to put it in different places. They will break up the continuity of this unit–and will they ever get back together? Maybe not. That’s the problem, and that will be the demise of the 369th. I don’t think the soldiers of World War I volunteered their time and their lives to have this happen. It is part of American history and part of civil rights, because they had the trials and tribulations of getting this unit started from the beginning.”
Further discussing the history of the building, James said, “In 1913, the governor authorized this unit to be formed, but it wasn’t authorized until 1917 because of the predicament of Black soldiers learning to fight. They didn’t want them to go and kill white people. It was a war. On top of that, they wouldn’t let them fight with the American forces. They had to fight with the French forces. Never in history and never again would they take an integral part of the United States Army and give it to a foreign power, which was France,” he said.
“The French all along felt very humbled with the 369th and its history. In addition, James Reese Europe was the bandleader who introduced jazz to Europe. That’s what I want to preserve. I want to preserve the inside of this building as a historical site, and not change anything. The other thing is, why can’t they do it in piecemeal instead of gutting the whole building and uprooting everybody?” James questioned.
The building is rich with history, from the customized doorknobs to the embellishments and crests and other decorations throughout that pay homage to the 369th. James wants all of its irreplaceable history preserved for generations as a legacy to the African-American soldiers who served in the 369th.
Come out and see this Harlem history firsthand at the Harlem Armory open house, to be held Monday Feb. 25 through the 28 at the Armory, located at 142nd Street and Fifth Avenue, from noon to 4 p.m.