Remembering the Harlem Hellfighters of WWI

During Black History Month, the French are remembering the African-American 369th regiment, which served under French command during World War I. To honor the Harlem Hellfighters, as they came to be known, the Consulate General of France in New York held a reception and exhibit of documents and archival images on February 20. The Consulate also produced a video about the Harlem Hellfighters. The video can be viewed below, following the translation of an article about the Harlem Hellfighters which appeared in French Morning.

Maj. Gen. Nathaniel James, president of the 369th Regiment Museum (Photo via French Morning)

Maj. Gen. Nathaniel James, president of the 369th Regiment Museum (Photo via French Morning)

The 369th Regiment Armory stands at the intersection of 142nd Street and 5th Avenue, in the heart of Harlem.

Dressed in a brown suit and a 369th Regiment baseball cap, retired Maj. Gen. Nathaniel James sits comfortably behind a large, sturdy wooden desk. Military awards and photos of the unit’s soldiers line the walls.

James’ wide grin makes him appear much younger than his 79 years. He is deeply immersed in his favorite activity: recounting the story of the Harlem Hellfighters.

“The French army needed help in World War I. The Americans proposed the 369th, and they accepted. That’s how the story of the Harlem Hellfighters begins,” he says.

The Harlem Hellfighters were the first African-American unit to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. Because of America’s strict segregationist policies at the time, the regiment was placed under the command of the French army.

In Europe they quickly built a sterling reputation.

“The German soldiers wondered why these men were fighting so valiantly for a country that treated them so poorly! They just didn’t understand it. They tried to capture the soldiers but they never succeeded,” James explains. “This was an opportunity for blacks to fight, to seize an opportunity offered to them.”

The German soldiers gave the 369th the nickname “Hellfighters” for their courage and valor in battle.

After the war, many of the Harlem Hellfighters were decorated by the French military. One hundred and seventy one members of the regiment were awarded the Legion of Honor, the highest French military decoration. The French government also awarded the regiment the Croix de Guerre, another high honor.

The story of this regiment is well known in James’ neighborhood. Today, James no longer fights on the battlefield – instead he fights to ensure that the legacy of the Harlem Hellfighters is never forgotten. To preserve their memory, he founded the 369th Historical Society in 1960, where the story of these brave soldiers lives on.

“These soldiers died, and it’s essential that young people are informed of the existence and the history of the 369th,” James says.

The goal of the 369th Historical Society is to collect, preserve and maintain objects, books, documents, photographs, films and articles on the history of the 369th regiment, of its allies and the African-American soldiers who served the United States. The museum’s collection includes a vast number of photographs and artifacts of soldiers from World War I up to today.

Over the course of his 33-year career, Nathaniel James has held many different jobs and has continued to build up his appreciation of army command, operations, and strategy.

Promoted to general of his division in 1992, James became the first African American to achieve this rank in the history of the National Guard of the Army of New York.

When asked if he’s proud of this distinction, his eyes light up. “When you’re born in this country and you succeed, yes, that’s something to be proud of.”

France not only respects the Hellfighters for their invaluable military support – they also helped the country discover jazz music. The regiment’s orchestra, led by James Reese Europe, effectively introduced jazz to Europe. Starting in 1918, he traveled through France, giving concerts.

Credit: The Harlem HellFighters by consulfrancenyc (Consulate General of France in New York) on Dailymotion

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