World War I: Black is not a color of the rainbow

When the New York National Guardsmen of the 42nd Infantry Division left for the Great War, they were given a jubilant send-off. They were named the Rainbow Division. Another group of men, the 369th, also from New York, would leave for the war but with no parade or best wishes because “black was not a color of the rainbow.” The Germans would name them the Harlem Hellfighters.

1920px-369th_15th_New_YorkSoldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.) who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Storms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor U.S. National Archives.

These men were considered last in American society, yet one of the first to see combat, white or black. They would experience close to 200 days of intense combat — longer than any American unit during the war, white or black, and they were the first Allied unit to reach the Rhine river. They returned home as one the most decorated units in the American Expeditionary Force. The United States Marine Corps remembers the Battle of Belleau Woods. The Harlem Hellfighters were there (but seldom mentioned) and refused the order to retreat. They were critical in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. The U.S. Army would bestow one Medal of Honor and several Distinguished Services Crosses for exceptional valor, but the greatest appreciation and recognition for the Hellfighters would come from the French government, which awarded the regiment the Croix de Guerre, their equivalent of the Medal of Honor, and 171 individual medals for conspicuous gallantry. When they arrived home, they were barred from participating in the Victory Parade in 1919 and the military police (MP) were ordered not to salute them.

The indignities they had suffered before they saw fighting in France are appalling. In an abbreviated basic-training course, they had endured violent racism within the military and from the civilian population. They were given brooms instead of rifles. Their transport ship had almost failed three times to get them to France. The ship was offered no protection from German submarines. When they had arrived ‘over there,’ they, just as most U.S. Negro troops, were assigned to hard labor, the loading and unloading of ships and emptying latrines. White troops refused to work with them, no less fight next to them.

General John Pershing, nicknamed ‘Black Jack’ because he had served with the Buffalo Soldiers, a Negro Cavalry unit and who, respecting black soldiers, could not overcome the U.S. Army’s institutional segregation, gave the 369th to the French. The men would wear French helmets — a good thing because they were the only ones in the war made of steel — and shoot French rifles – a bad thing because the Berthier rifle had a 3-round magazine and a tendency for the barrel to wear out. Although the regiment would meet French colonial blacks from Morocco and Senegal, train with them, their marching band, under the direction of James Reese Europe, would introduce French audiences to jazz and increase their popularity and prestige. In America, the Hellfighters experienced racism, but in France, acceptance.

The unit received notoriety after May 14, 1918, when Irvin S. Cobb, reporting for the Saturday Evening Post, relayed the heroism of two men of the 369th. A German patrol had ambushed Corporal Henry Lincoln Johnson and Private Needham Roberts. Both men stood their ground, wounded, their rifles spent but, when the Germans attempted to drag Roberts off, Johnson attacked them with a bolo knife. Johnson would kill 24 Germans in hand-to-combat to rescue his comrade. He would sustain multiple wounds to his legs and feet. Johnson became the first American soldier to receive the Croix de Guerre with star and Gold Palm.

On February 17, 1919, a million New Yorkers turned out to watch the Harlem Hellfighters march their way home to the Harlem Armory. Unable to march, Sergeant Henry Johnson sat in a car, his heroism unacknowledged by his own government. His war injuries prevented him from returning to his job as a Pullman porter. He would die in 1929, destitute, and unpopular because he spoke out against the mistreatment he and his comrades had received from the U.S. military. In similar straits, Eugene  Jacques Bullard, a highly decorated African-American veteran of World War I and II, would die unknown as an elevator operator at New York’s Rockefeller Center. On August 23, 1994, seventy seven years later, the USAF posthumously commissioned him as a Lieutenant.

All the men of the 369th had joined because they were patriotic Americans. They believed that they could alter the perception of their fellow citizens. They had hoped their example would change American society. The French honored them and treated them as equals. The Germans respected them. The America south continued Jim Crow laws. President Woodrow Wilson segregated federal agencies, encouraged disenfranchisement of black voters, and condoned hiring discrimination.

For a brief moment in February of 1919, the Harlem Hellfighters had their parade and their moment of recognition; but nobody would anticipate the enormous migration of southern blacks to the north to work in such places as Henry Ford’s plants or elsewhere; nobody anticipated the First Red Scare in the wake of the Russian Revolution, or the Red Summer of 1919, when race riots tore American cities apart. Whites attacked blacks, and blacks fought back. Federal troops, called in to restore order, fueled more violence. In the Omaha Race Riot, for example, thousands of whites attacked the police, while blacks attacked whites trying to help blacks. They nearly lynched the mayor and did lynch and desecrate the body of Will Brown. A young Henry Fonda witnessed it.

Black is not a color of the rainbow.

In 1996, Sgt. Henry Lincoln Johnson received the Purple Heart and, in 2003, the Distinguished Service Cross, posthumously. There is a campaign for him to receive the Medal of Honor. There is a renewed interest in the Harlem Hellfighters, with numerous publications, among them Max Brooks and Caanan White’s graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters. A film is rumored to be in the works.

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About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
This entry was posted in Remembering Black History, Remembering World War I and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to World War I: Black is not a color of the rainbow

  1. Susan Ostrem says:

    Thanks for bringing a little-known piece of history to light. It’s too bad that more people can’t read of this unit’s exploits.

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