It’s a week away from Memorial Day, and in honor of the holiday, this month’s second blog post is on the book Harlem Hellfighters. It is a great introduction for kids aged 8 and up, who may want to learn about war heroes.
A little known fact: 375,00 African-American soldiers fought in World War I. The 15th New York National Guard was federalized as the 369th Infantry Regiment and later became known as the Harlem Hellfighters.
They called themselves Men of Bronze, and were also musicians that played a mix of jazz, blues and ragtime, led by James “Big Jim” Reese. Even thought they were dismissed by white Americans as “darkies playing soldiers,” 2000 volunteered for the cause. They were butlers, porters, doormen and elevator operators. Many in big Jim’s band signed up in the name of patriotism.
At first, the soldiers were only given grunt work like shoveling dams and building hospitals. They even had to lay bloodied rail lines, and they went three months doing only this type of work until they received a mission for the band to play for French troops on Christmas Eve.
In the Spring of 1918, the men finally received a battle mission. Harlem Hellfighters details some of the stories of the soldiers, including Henry Johnson, a reporter from Albany, New York who received France’s highest military honor – the Croix de Guerre.
The Harlem Hellfighters were known as the regiment that “never lost a man captured, a trench, or a foot of ground.” Fifteen-hundred of the Hellfighters were killed or wounded, and 171 received France’s Croix de Guerre. In 1919, they came home to America as heroes and marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City to patriotic songs, followed by a flood of wives, and mothers hugging and kissing their men returning home.
This Memorial Day, let us salute the Harlem Hellfighters, and their courage to fight for an America that did not always accept them.
Illustrated by: Gary Kelley