Thousands of brave African American soldiers remained forgotten for decades despite proving their courage on the battlefield.
When talking of the World War I victory, it would be nothing less than a gross injustice to leave out the role played by the highly decorated 369th Infantry Regiment. And yet, that is exactly what happened to the stories of the thousands of brave African American soldiers who valiantly fought alongside the French despite repeatedly facing discrimination at home. These heroes—known as the Harlem Hellfighters—remained forgotten for decades despite proving their courage on the battlefield, where they spent more time in continuous combat than any other American unit of its size.
According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, approximately 200,000 African Americans served in Europe during the conflict, of which roughly 42,000 saw combat. Although they went on to become the most celebrated African American regiment in World War I, they confronted racism even as they trained for war. "There had been all kind of insults hurled at our body who were on duty in town," musician Noble Sissle wrote in his memoir, reports Smithsonian. "Our boys had some pretty bitter pills to swallow." Sissle himself was kicked and called a racial slur by a hotel proprietor in Spartanburg, South Carolina when he stopped in to get some newspapers.
"As a direct result of such repeated confrontations (not despite them)," Peter N. Nelson reportedly wrote in A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighter's Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home, "a bond was forged among the men of the 15th, a fighting spirit they hoped would serve them well when they got to France." However, even before setting out for Europe, the unit was once again snubbed by their country when they were refused permission to participate in the farewell parade of New York's National Guard, known as the Rainbow Division. Why? Because "black is not a color in the rainbow."
Soon after arriving in Brest, France, on the first day of 1918, the 369th faced discrimination yet again at the hands of General John Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe. Pershing, who had until then insisted on forming an independent American force in France, handed the all-Black unit over to the French army to reinforce their badly depleted divisions—a move that has raised many questions over the years. Pershing's relationship with Black soldiers can be called "complicated" at best as despite serving with the all-Black 10th Cavalry in 1895; he wrote in his 1931 memoir that Black soldiers needed more training because of "lower capacity and lack of education."
William Hayward—a White attorney and former Nebraska National Guard colonel—who was the commander of the 369th Infantry Regiment, criticized the general's decision in a strongly worded letter. "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," he wrote. Despite the constant discrimination they faced, the Harlem Hellfighters (a name believed to have been given by their German foes for their courage and ferocity) quickly proved their bravery and combat skills on the battlefield.
Perhaps one of the most inspiring battle stories of the 369th unit is that of Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts, who fought off an entire German patrol while severely wounded and out of ammunition. The Harlem Hellfighters spent a total of 191 days in the front-line trenches — longer than any other American unit of its size — and also suffered more losses than any other American regiment with over 1400 casualties. After the war, 171 members of the regiment were awarded the coveted Croix de Guerre medal by the French government for their extraordinary courage while the whole unit was given the Croix de Guerre citation.
The Harlem Hellfighters returned home on February 17, 1919, to a victory parade attended by New Yorkers of every race. However, their fame was shortlived as the remarkable story of the Harlem Hellfighters was effectively erased from America's national consciousness for nearly a century. Johnson, who’d become one of the war’s most famous American soldiers, disappeared from the public sphere and died in July 1929 at the age of 39 of an enlarged heart. "America can’t change what happened to Henry Johnson," said President Barack Obama in 2015—97 years after Johnson's battle in France—when awarding him a posthumous Medal of Honor. "But we can do our best to make it right."