Command Sgt. Maj. Louis Wilson of the N ew York Army National Guard accepts the Medal of Honor on behalf of World War I Pvt. Henry Johnson, who served with the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, at the White House, Washington, d.C., June 2, 2015. (231242)
Credit: Lisa Ferdinando

In the World War I era, Jim Crow segregation laws were prominent throughout the United States in all segments of society, as well as during physical combat overseas. Approximately 380,000 African-Americans served military duty then, gaining prominent status on the very vulnerable front lines.

Despite overt racism in their own country, the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters, fought alongside Caucasian Frenchmen in the trenches, some even wearing French uniforms.

They wound up spending 191 consecutive days in combat (longer than any other American unit). They could proudly boast that they “never had a prisoner of war captured by the enemy during battle,” revealed Chancellor of Information Lord Graceful Malik Allah. “The Harlem Hellfighters was one of the most decorated units in military history, Black or white.”

Initially shipped to France in December 1917, “They were supposed to stay on the side-lines, but they wound up on front-street once General John Pershing assigned them to the 16th Division of the French army,” Allah explained. The 369th unit was very resilient and “one of the most feared, respected and decorated Allied units,” he added.

During combat, the Germans had nicknamed them the “Harlem Hellfighters,” and being that more than 70 percent of them originated from Harlem, it was very appropriate. Their French allies referred to them as the “Men of Bronze.”

While in France, James Reese Europe led the 369th Infantry Jazz Band to raise the soldiers’ morale while they endured the casualties of war. The rhythmic hymns enchanted soldiers.

Upon returning to Harlem in February 1919 at the conclusion of the Great War, Reese stated, “I have come from France more firmly convinced than ever that [Blacks] should write [Black] music. We have our own racial feeling and if we try to copy [Caucasians] we will make bad copies. We won France by playing music which was ours and not a pale imitation of others, and if we are to develop in America we must develop along our own lines.”

The Harlem Hellfighters helped popularize jazz in Europe and introduced big band and ragtime to the world.

After the war, The Hellfighters Jazz Band performed at their victory parade along NYC’s Fifth Avenue in front of more than a million people. Although they were well received, the torrid “Red Summer” of 1919 saw numerous anti-Black riots erupt in 26 different cities across America. The band’s sounds helped to quell things a bit.

In 2014, Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Henry Johnson received the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War I. In 2015, fellow Hellfighter William Henry Johnson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor. During the White House ceremony President Barack Obama stated, “The least we can do is to say we know who you are. We know what you did for us. We are forever grateful.”