Who Were the Harlem Hellfighters?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: In a 1919 precursor to Veterans Day parades, thousands honored them.

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Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.

Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 54: Which regiment of black soldiers returning from Europe after World War I received a hero’s welcome, by blacks and whites alike, in New York City?

Introduction

“Up the wide avenue they swung. Their smiles outshone the golden sunlight. In every line proud chests expanded beneath the medals valor had won. The impassioned cheering of the crowds massed along the way drowned the blaring cadence of their former jazz band. The old 15th was on parade and New York turned out to tender its dark-skinned heroes a New York welcome.”

So began the three-page spread the New York Tribune ran Feb. 18, 1919, a day after 3,000 veterans of the 369th Infantry (formerly the 15th New York (Colored) Regiment) paraded up from Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street to 145th and Lenox. One of the few black combat regiments in World War I, they’d earned the prestigious Croix de Guerre from the French army under which they’d served for six months of “brave and bitter fighting.” Their nickname they’d received from their German foes: “Hellfighters,” the Harlem Hellfighters.

In their ranks was one of the Great War’s greatest heroes, Pvt. Henry Johnson of Albany, N.Y., who, though riding in a car for the wounded, was so moved by the outpouring he stood up waving the bouquet of flowers he’d been handed. It would take another 77 years for Johnson to receive an official Purple Heart from his own government, but on this day, not even the steel plate in his foot could weigh him down.

It was, the newspapers noted, the first opportunity the City of New York had to greet a full regiment of returning doughboys, black or white. The Chicago Defender put the crowd at 2 million, the New York Tribune at 5 million, with even the New York Times conservatively estimating it at “hundreds of thousands.” “Never have white Americans accorded so heartfelt and hearty a reception to a contingent of their black country-men,” the Tribune continued. And “the ebony warriors” felt it, literally, beneath a hail of chocolate candy, cigarettes and coins raining down on them from open windows up and down the avenues. It would have been hard to miss them, at least according to the New York Times, to whom all the men appeared 7 feet tall.  

Yet as rousing as those well-wishers were, the Tribune pointed out, “the greeting the regiment received along Fifth Avenue was to the tumult which greeted it in Harlem as the west wind to a tornado.” After all, 70 percent of the 369th called Harlem home, and their families, friends and neighbors had turned out in full force to thank and welcome those who’d made it back. Eight hundred hadn’t, an absence recalled in the number of handkerchiefs drying wet eyes. 

That morning, it had taken four trains and two ferries to transport the black veterans and their white officers from Camp Upton on Long Island to Manhattan, and the parade, kicking off at 11:00 a.m.—an echo of the armistice that had halted the fighting three months before—stretched seven miles long. In his 1845 slave narrative, Frederick Douglass had likened his master to a snake; now a rattlesnake adorned the black veterans’ uniforms—their insignia. On hand to greet them was a host of dignitaries, including the African-American leader Emmett Scott, special adjutant to the secretary of war; William Randolph Hearst; and New York’s popular Irish Catholic governor, Al Smith, who reviewed his Hellfighters from a pair of stands on 60th and 133rd Streets.

In Harlem, the Chicago Defender observed, Feb. 17, 1919, was an unofficial holiday, with black school children granted dismissal by the board of education. A similar greeting—on the same day, in fact—met the returning black veterans of the 370th Infantry (the old Eighth Illinois) in Chicago, Chad L. Williams writes in his 2010 book, Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era. And in the coming months, there would be other celebrations, even in the Jim Crow South, most notably Savannah, Ga., the state that in 1917 and 1918 led the nation in lynchings, according to statistics published by the Tuskegee Institute. It was, to be sure, a singular season, a pause between the end of hostilities abroad and the resumption of hostilities at home in a nation still divided so starkly, so violently, by the color line.

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