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Harlem Gave ’Em Hell

The Harlem Hell Fighters are among the countless African-American Guard Soldiers who have defended our nation—even while enduring discrimination themselves—since the 1600s.
Soldiers of the 369th “Harlem Hell Fighters” arrive home in New York.
The 369th in France. The Army had assigned the unit to the French army, where the men were issued French helmets, though they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms.
Soldiers of the 369th march past the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue during their 1919 homecoming parade.

Since the establishment of colonial militias in the 17th century, African-American Guard Soldiers have made monumental contributions in every major U.S. war. From fighting in early all-black Guard regiments to becoming some of the most highly decorated units during WWI to serving side by side with their white counterparts after the integration of the military in 1948, African-Americans have served with distinction and continue to excel in the modern-day Guard.

However, less than seven decades ago, these Citizen-Soldiers served without enjoying the full rights and freedoms that they were fighting to protect.

During the days before the American Revolution, both enslaved African-Americans and freedmen served in colonial militias. During the Revolution, black men also joined the Continental Army and fought for their new nation’s freedom. But the “land of liberty” would be slow in recognizing that “all men are created equal.”

After the Revolution, in 1792, Congress passed a law prohibiting African-Americans from serving in the Army, taking away rights from those African-Americans who had been able to serve in colonial militias in states that had allowed it prior to, and during, the American Revolution. However, there were some notable exceptions to this policy, as Louisiana raised militia units of freed black men thanks to a treaty provision that allowed it to disregard federal law.

Attitudes began to change with the outbreak of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, a prominent African-American abolitionist, author and orator, were among those who strongly supported the raising of African-American militia regiments. In 1862, African-Americans were permitted to serve but relegated to all-black regiments under the command of white officers. But it would be these brave men who would help pave the way for future opportunities for African-American Soldiers.

After the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, African-American Guard members continued to march through history, winning accolades and, most important, their independence, as the 19th century turned into the 20th.

During WWI and WWII, African-American Soldiers proved to a skeptical American public exactly what they were capable of doing if given the same rights as their white counterparts. Then, in 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order No. 9981, which called for an end to segregation in America’s military. What followed was the slow but steady dismantling of segregation across the country in the 1950s and 1960s. Citizen-Soldiers were now all part of one National Guard.

Today’s African-American men and women who serve in our National Guard represent the successful culmination of a long struggle for freedom and equality; these brave Soldiers exemplify all that is good in our country. They, along with their comrades, stand ready to write new chapters in the proud heritage of African-American Citizen-Soldiers in the National Guard.


 Soldiers of the 369th Regiment after their return to New York in 1919.


The year 2014 marks the beginning of the centennial of WWI. When the United States entered the war in 1917, it sent segregated units to Europe that consisted of either all white or all black Soldiers—the latter usually commanded by white officers. One such unit was the 93rd Infantry Division, which, other than the 371st Infantry (National Army), also included three all-black National Guard regiments: the 369th, the 370th and the 372nd Infantry. Though all three would fight courageously, the 369th, also known as the Harlem Hell Fighters, would attain one of the best combat records of any National Guard regiment during WWI.

The 369th was originally constituted on June 2, 1913, as the 15th New York Infantry Regiment. Gov. Charles Whitman of New York selected William Hayward, previously a colonel in the Nebraska National Guard, to be the commanding officer of the 15th New York. Hayward, a white public service commissioner, was well liked in New York’s African-American community. It was Hayward’s desire to make the regiment a source of community pride, especially in the area of New York City known as Harlem.

Organized on June 29, 1916, the regiment trained in the New York area and was mustered into federal service on July 25, 1917. The regiment was sent to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, SC, for intense training. On Dec. 1, 1917, the 15th New York was assigned to the 185th Infantry Brigade of the newly formed 93rd Infantry Division (Provisional). The division was provisional due to trepidation among several Army leaders about having an all-black division. Once it became clear the 93rd was staying, the unit was renamed the 93rd Infantry Division (Colored).

At this time, the strength of the 15th New York held fast at 1,378 Soldiers. One of these men was an African-American musician named Lieutenant James Reese Europe, who had already gained some national fame. Europe was part of the first performance of African-American musicians at Carnegie Hall and the first African-American bandleader to have a contract with a major recording studio. Hayward had wanted Europe to form and lead the regimental band. Though he did do what Hayward had asked, Europe went on to earn a commission as an officer. Once in France, Europe took command of a machine-gun unit. He would help bring jazz music to the people of France, and ultimately to all of the European continent.

The 15th New York shipped out of New York on Dec. 27, 1917, en route to the war. The regiment was the only National Guard unit to arrive in France under its old state designation. This fact would quickly change when the unit was reorganized as the 369th Infantry Regiment on March 1, 1918. The discrimination the unit faced back home in America had unfortunately followed the men to Europe. General John Pershing, supreme commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, succumbed to political pressure and chose not to allow African-American units to see combat. Instead, the units, including the 369th, were relegated to working as laborers performing menial tasks.

However, not all of the white American officers agreed with Pershing’s decision. According to the 2010 documentary For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots, Lieutenant Osceola McKaine of the 367th Infantry said: “Everywhere the offensive spirit is alive, pulsating, waiting for the hour to strike, that the spirit of real and true democracy will not perish. I should be happy to have millions of colored Soldiers over here fighting to preserve the highest-valued thing on earth—liberty.”

It became evident that if the Americans weren’t going to use the African-American troops, then the French would. Needing as many available Soldiers as possible due to their numbers having been decimated from years of trench warfare, the French High Command convinced Pershing to transfer the African-American units. The officers of the French army did not possess the same prejudices of their American counterparts. In fact, many of the French officers had been in command of African Soldiers in the French colonies. Thanks to this air of acceptance, the men of the 369th quickly learned how to effectively use French weapons and battle tactics. Many of them even learned how to speak French, which helped endear them to their new comrades.

In April 1918, after just over a month of training, the 369th was marching to the front. Once it arrived on the frontline in Minacourt, France, German artillery rained down on the Soldiers.

“Stones, dirt, shrapnel, limbs and whole trees filled the air,” said one of those Soldiers, Major Warner Ross, according to For Love of Liberty. “The noise and concussion alone were enough to kill you. Flashes of fire, the metallic crack of high explosives, the awful explosions that dug holes fifteen and twenty feet in diameter. The utter and complete pandemonium and the stench of hell.”

Undeterred by this apocalyptic environment, the men of the 369th were quick to show their tenacity and courage under fire. During the evening of May 14, 1918, African-American Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were on watch when their small dugout was attacked by at least two dozen German troops. As they both fought valiantly against the surging enemy force, a grenade landed and exploded at their feet, seriously wounding Roberts and leaving Johnson to face the German onslaught alone.

Before the war, Johnson had been a porter for the New York Central Railroad. Now a Citizen-Soldier wounded and under intense attack from a superior enemy force, he would fiercely defend not only himself but also his wounded comrade. In the end, Johnson, himself wounded, had killed or wounded 24 enemy troops and caused them to withdraw. Once back behind the lines, the men were approached by three American reporters who happened to be there writing a story about the regimental band. Once the reporters heard of the two Soldiers’ daring stand, they immediately went to the site of what one of the writers dubbed “The Battle of Henry Johnson.”

Within days, the Associated Press in America was spreading the story across the nation. Reporter Martin Green of the New York Evening World wrote: “Having shot one of his foes down and clubbed another with the butt of his rifle, he sprang to the aid of Roberts with his bolo knife. As the enemy fell into disorderly retreat, Johnson, three times wounded, sank to the ground, seized a grenade alongside his prostrate body, and literally blew one of the fleeing Germans to fragments.”

For their actions, Roberts and Johnson were later presented with the Croix de Guerre from the French military. These two African-American National Guard members from New York were the first American Soldiers, of any color, to receive this honor during WWI. Back home, thanks to the multitude of news reports, both men quickly became American heroes, especially among black communities.

Johnson and Roberts would not be the only African-American members of the 369th to distinguish themselves during WWI. During the Battle of Belleau Wood, Colonel Hayward ignored the advice of a French general urging him to retreat. “Turn back?” Hayward is said to have declared, according to For Love of Liberty. “I should say not! My men never retire; they go forward, or they die!”

This, and other courageous actions, caused the French to call the men of the 369th the Harlem Hell Fighters—a moniker that would be solidified during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of Sept. 26, 1918, when the unit’s brutal struggle to take the town of Sechault, France, would result in the regiment as a whole being presented the Croix de Guerre with Silver Star.

In total, the 369th Infantry spent 191 days on the frontline under enemy fire. Often, there was nothing standing in the way between Paris and the German army other than these African-American National Guard Soldiers.

Following the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, between the Allies of WWI and Germany, which ended the war, the Hell Fighters were given the immense honor of serving as the advance troops for the Allied forces. As such, the 369th was the first Allied unit to march through the German lines and reach the Rhine River.

The regiment’s long journey finally came to an end on Feb. 17, 1919, when it returned to New York City. An estimated 1 million jubilant New Yorkers cheered along the route of the regiment’s homecoming parade.

As they made their way up Fifth Avenue toward Harlem, the men proudly marched behind their color guard carrying the flag of the 15th New York Infantry Regiment. Today’s 369th Sustainment Brigade, New York Army National Guard, carries on their legacy with the same nickname, the Harlem Hell Fighters. 




Highlights of African-American Guard Soldiers in the nation’s wars:

Early Colonial Wars (16071775)

Early militia laws in many colonies forbade arming African-Americans out of fear of possible insurrections. However, several colonies, including New York, not only permitted African-Americans to serve but would also grant freedom to those who served honorably during wartime. By 1705, almost one-third of the militiamen in the Carolinas were African-Americans. These men would assist in the defeat of Native Americans in the Yamasee War of 1715.

Revolutionary War (1775–1783)

Prince Estabrook, a slave in Massachusetts, enlisted in the Lexington militia in 1773. On the fateful morning of April 19, 1775, Estabrook, along with other minutemen, was shot by the British army on the Lexington Green, thus becoming the first African-American to fight and be injured in the American Revolution. He would continue to serve in the Army until the war ended in 1783. In recognition of his service, Estabrook’s owner gave him his freedom. He is one of the thousands of African-Americans who served in the war.

War of 1812 (1812–1815)

In 1792, a federal law passed prohibiting the enlistment of African-Americans in state militias and the Regular Army. However, Louisiana raised militia units of freed blacks thanks to a treaty provision that allowed it to disregard any federal law that went against its traditions. The Louisiana Battalion of Free Men of Color assisted General Andrew Jackson’s force in the victory at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815.

Mexican-American War (1846–1848)

Records of African-American service during this conflict are scarce. As in the War of 1812, one of the only state militia units to see service was from Louisiana. However, it is believed that other African-American militiamen may have augmented other pre-existing militia units. The Militia Act of 1792 did not allow for the enrollment of blacks in the militia. This changed with the Militia Act of 1862.

Civil War (1861–1865)

In 1862, in dire need of as many new recruits as possible, the federal government authorized the open recruitment of African-American men. They would serve in all-black units, under the command of white officers. One of the first and best-known of these units was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. The 54th gained immortality in its charge of Fort Wagner, outside Charleston, SC, on July 18, 1863. During the attack, Shaw was mortally wounded, and Sergeant William H. Carney’s actions in saving the regiment’s U.S. flag would earn him the Medal of Honor, the first to be presented to an African-American Soldier for valor on the battlefield. The names of the 209,145 African-Americans who served during the Civil War, on both sides, are listed on the walls of the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington, DC.

Spanish-American War (1898)

Of the 16 states that had black units at this time, only eight offered African-American units for federal service as U.S. volunteers. Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia all provided segregated all-black units, and with the exception of the 3rd Alabama and the 6th Virginia, all of the officers were also African-Americans.

WWI (1914–1918)

In addition to the 369th, the other two African-American Guard regiments of the 93rd Division—the 370th and 372nd—also fought with distinction. The 370th, formerly the 8th Illinois Infantry Regiment, became known as the “Black Devils” during the war. Today their lineage is carried on by the 1st Battalion, 178th Infantry, Illinois National Guard. The 372nd was made up of Guard units from Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, Maryland and the District of Columbia. The regiment’s lineage lives on today in the Maryland Guard’s 229th Main Support Battalion, the District of Columbia Guard’s 372nd Military Police Battalion and the Ohio Guard’s 237th Support Battalion. 

WWII (1939–1945)

Unlike in WWI, only two African-American Guard units saw actual combat in WWII, the 1698th and 1699th Engineer Battalions (Combat), which came from the 370th Infantry of Illinois. However, many black Guard members would volunteer for federal service and serve with distinction in WWII.

Korean War (1950–1953)

On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order No. 9981, which called for an end to segregation in America’s military. Many Guard leaders who were against desegregation believed that Truman’s order referred only to federal units, not the Guard. Thus, segregation still existed among most of the units that deployed to Korea. Maryland and the District of Columbia sent three all-black transportation units to Korea, which marked the last time the Guard ever deployed segregated units to war.

Vietnam (1956–1975)

In 1965, the Vietnam era, the National Guard Bureau (NGB) announced that Guard units could lose federal recognition if they denied membership or promotion of their members due to race. The following year, NGB issued new regulations concerning integration. States began actively recruiting African-Americans, with New Jersey and New York taking the lead. Also spurring change was the recommendation of a National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to encourage the participation of black Guard members when responding to riots. The changes over the course of more than a decade culminated when Major General Cunningham C. Bryant became the first federally recognized African-American Army National Guard general officer when he became the commanding general of the District of Columbia National Guard.

Gulf War (1990–1991)

New policies in recruiting led to the National Guard posting an all-time high membership rate of 456,960 by the summer of 1990. African-Americans made up about 16 percent of the force at that time—71,334 in all.

War in Iraq (2003–2011)

Specialist Jason L. Mike, a medic in the 617th Military Police Company, Kentucky National Guard, risked his life to recover comrades who were wounded when their convoy was attacked by insurgents on March 20, 2005. Sergeant First Class Chad M. Stephens of the 1st Battalion, 120th Infantry, 30th Infantry Brigade, North Carolina Guard, sprinted 50 yards through heavy fire to help rescue a gunner who had suffered serious wounds when his platoon came under heavy attack. Both Mike and Stephens were awarded the Silver Star.

War in Afghanistan (2001–present)

When Guard members first deployed to Afghanistan in 2001, they did so under the command of the first African-American to serve as chief of NGB—Lieutenant General Russell C. Davis, who presided over the Army National Guard and Air Guard. For the past 20-plus years, the Army (including the Guard) has had the highest percentage of black Soldiers.