Victory and Defeat: World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters, and a Lost Battle for Civil Rights

By Wright, Ben | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Victory and Defeat: World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters, and a Lost Battle for Civil Rights


Wright, Ben, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


On March 21, 2007, Congress along with President George W. Bush awarded the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal. Former Secretary of State and retired General Colin Powell claimed that without the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen, he would not have achieved his respective titles. The president expressed hope that the medal would stand as an apology for the mistreatment committed by the government they so valiantly served. Dr. Roscoe Brown, a former commander of the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, proclaimed that "because of our great record and our persistence, we inspired revolutionary reform which led to integration in the armed forces in 1948."(1) The participation of black men in the armed services, risking their lives for the security of America, has often been credited for attenuating racial tensions. As seen from the sentiments expressed at the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony, it is widely acknowledged that the contradictions of fighting European racist fascism during World War II while simultaneously upholding racial prejudice at home accelerated civil rights reforms. (2) But military service did not always lead to greater freedom.

Three decades before Dr. Brown and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen took to the skies, the 369 (th) Infantry, an all black regiment from New York immortalized as the Harlem Hel!fighters, firmly stood as the last line of defense between advancing German forces and Paris. Few African American soldiers in World War I had an opportunity to earn the battlefield commendations of the 369 (th), but the very things that set them apart make the 3691h a useful window into the limitations of racial change in the era. No other African American regiment garnered as much attention or praise, and accordingly make the most appropriate corollary to the celebrated Tuskegee Airmen. Though

the 369 (th) left France as the most decorated unit in the war, unlike the Tuskegee Airmen they would not see their sacrifices lead to racial progress. In fact, with the end of World War I the United States experienced a sharp rise in racial violence and a dramatic resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Understanding the failure of the United States to make the world safe for democracy both at home and in Europe brings us face to face with racial violence, the great tragedy of American history. Using the story of the 369 (th) Infantry, framed by the work of Emmett J. Scott's The American Negro in the World War, this article chronicles the soaring hope and crushing disappointment of a formative but understudied era in modern African American history.

The 369 (th) Infantry's battlefield heroics are frequently featured in World War I and black military service histories, graphically recounting the military achievements of the regiment. The stories of the 369 (th) are truly inspiring, even motivating the production of a History Channel documentary entitled Men of Bronze. Little, though, has been written on the soldiers' post-war experiences.(3) Bill Harris, in his 2002 work The Hellfighters of Harlem, seeks to tell the story of the men who made up the 369th. While he offers a rousing celebratory history of the infantry's wartime achievements, he neglects the pre-war optimism or the post-war backlash. Harris successfully chronicles the singular military achievements of the regiment; however, more can be done to connect battlefield experiences with larger social and cultural developments. Much has been written about the racial conflict of 1919, described as the Red Summer. These accounts are generally elegiac, lamenting the suppression of American radicalism and either focusing on the self-indulgent consumption-crazed culture of the 1920s or as an era of regrouping for African American organizing. Existing studies unfortunately undervalue the utility of Emmett J. Scott. Scott served for eighteen years as private secretary to Booker T. Washington before receiving an appointment as Special Assistant to Secretary of War Newton D. …

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Victory and Defeat: World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters, and a Lost Battle for Civil Rights
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