Last Thursday, Congressman Tom Suozzi, joined by Harlem leaders, announced he would be introducing legislation to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the all-Black regiment known as the Harlem Hellfighters.
The legislation, called The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act, would give long-overdue recognition to the 369th Infantry Regiment for their strength and bravery they showed during World War I.
During the war, the 369th Infantry Regiment was sent to fight alongside French soldiers, as American white soldiers refused to take to the battlefield alongside Black men.
The Harlem Helfighters spent more time in combat than any other regiment over the course of the war, yet faced racism both on and off the battlefield.
“A great failure of this country is the way that we’ve treated African-Americans throughout our history,” said Suozzi. “This is just another example of it.”
While a majority of the Hellfighters were from Harlem, others came from Brooklyn, upstate New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania. During WWI, many Black men were eager to join the cause, but were turned away by the Army.
Many of the Hellfighters were part of the first all-Black National Guard unit, the 15th New York National Guard Regiment. The regiment was created by Governor Charles Whitman after lobbying by Harlem civic leaders.
Gov. Whitman named his former campaign manager Whitman Hayward, a former Nebraska National Guard colonel, as the regiment’s commander. Hayward brought on a mix of Black and white officers, telling white officer candidates to “meet men according to their ranks as soldiers,” and that if they “intended to take a narrower attitude, [they] had better stay out,” according to the Smithsonian Magazine.
Over the course of the war, Hayward became known for advocating for fair treatment of his regiment within the Army.
The regiment is also credited with bringing jazz to France.
When the 2,000 troops arrived in Brest, France in 1918, they shocked French soldiers and civilians alike by having a band play a jazz rendition of “La Marseillaise.” While some Parisians had likely heard American jazz, the sound was new to a port town like Brest.
The Congressional Gold Medal now being awarded to the regiment is to honor those “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field, long after the achievement.”