Today I’m going to write about race in an historical context. The second book in my World War I and 1920s trilogy involves some characters from the revered 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment, the storied “Harlem’s Hell Fighters.” It will come as no surprise that almost all these doughboys were Black.
From Harlem to Over There
My first book, None of Us the Same, was set (mostly) in Ireland and Newfoundland and involved (mostly) White characters, although the two Black main characters in my second book appear as supporting characters in the first. I roughed out the trilogy before starting, so I’ve been delving into the 369th for some time now.
While researching Truly Are the Free—the title is drawn from a poem by Roscoe Jamison entitled “The Negro Soldiers”—I was deeply moved by the real-life story of the Black doughboys of the 369th. As a result, I found myself in the midst of a novel problem—a case of truth being stranger than fiction. Or in this case, more heroic than any fiction could aspire to be.
The 369th began as the 15th New York Infantry, a National Guard unit, formed just three years before the U.S. entered World War I. The governor and state legislature, after much lobbying by some Influential White Guys, finally agreed in 1913 to constitute a “colored” regiment to be based in Harlem. A successful Midtown lawyer named William Hayward was the leading voice in this effort. In his military alter ego of Colonel Bill Hayward, he would serve as founding commander of the regiment and lead them throughout the War.
Making Do With Very Little
The 15th New York was shortchanged on basically everything for three years before shipping out for France in November 1917. They had no armory, drilling where and when they could. Until U.S. entry into the War, they still had some soldiers wearing surplus “Union blue” uniforms and never had enough rifles for all their troops. They scrounged what few rifles they had from state surplus stocks by creating bogus “shooting clubs.”
Most of the captains were White as were about half the lieutenants. This may sound odd to modern sensibilities but was in keeping with the era. All of the enlisted doughboys were Black. That the 15th New York had any Black officers was progress and the Harlem community embraced the unit as representative of the best of their men.
When the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, the Secretary of War, Newton Baker, was determined that all Americans should unite in support of the war effort—including the 9.5 million African Americans who comprised 10% of the population. He managed to get the segregationist President Woodrow Wilson to go along with this idea. Baker ordered the War Department to place Black soldiers in combat units as well as labor units. In reality, the great majority of Black soldiers who served in France were assigned duties as stevedores at the ports, as construction gangs building base camps and railway spurs, and to any other variety of stoop labor.
America Exports Its Racism
The commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, General John Pershing, was not in the least thrilled about the prospect of Black soldiers fighting alongside his White troops and resisted Secretary Baker’s edict mightily. He managed to square the circle by fobbing off four colored regiments on the French Army. (There’s a fictionalized account of how this came about in Truly Are the Free.) The French had lost over a million men and endured mutinies in half their regiments. They were trés heureux to get Sammies, as the French called all Americans, into their depleted front-line divisions. So the now-federalized and rechristened 369th U.S. Infantry found itself in the trenches as part of the French Fourth Army. They remained under fire with the French for 191 days, longest of any American unit in the War.
The men of the 369th were treated by the French just like their own poilus (“hairy ones”—the universal nickname for French soldiers) with little or no regard for their race. This was even after the American general staff pressured their French counterparts into issuing a loathsome general order (almost certainly written by the American staff) concerning treatment of black American soldiers. Suffice it to say this order included every racist canard and Jim Crow falsehood found in any Southern state of the time, up to and including “keep them away from your White women.” Yeah, that.
Things Couldn’t Be The Same?
Their experience overseas forever changed the men of the 369th. They’d done their duty with honor and sometimes astounding courage. Having served as well or better than their White comrades, the Hell Fighters thought they’d return to a different America, welcomed back as equals. This was not to be, making the heroism of the 369th and other colored regiments all the more remarkable.
It’s hard to fully comprehend the horrible sense of disappointment and disillusionment these Black doughboys must have felt. Unlike their White counterparts, military authorities stripped Black soldiers of all weapons before leaving France. Once back in the States, they were encountered the widespread racial violence of the “Red Summer” of 1919. During this horrendous six-month period, Whites exacted a terrible toll on Black communities in cities—northern and southern—right across the country. These wretched events included a riot in Norfolk, Virginia. Black soldiers just landed back France were set upon and beaten by White sailors and Marines. I write of this in my novel, too.
Yet the experience of the Hell Fighters and other Black doughboys who served with the French proved to them in stark relief how things could be different. This lit a fuse that would burn and righteously explode in the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. What these brave men endured, therefore, was not completely in vain.
Carrying Jazz to France
One interesting side story about the Hell Fighters. This was the heyday of ragtime and the earliest days of jazz. The commander of the regiment, Colonel Hayward, sensed the vibrant musical scene in Harlem provided a unique tool for recruitment. He solicited donations from his wealthy White friends to establish a supplementary fund for musicians. This provided the best regimental band ever assembled, drawn from the fine musicians of Harlem.
The band leader, Captain Jim Europe, was a jazz pioneer who played any venue the could find in France after the regiment landed. The band was wildly popular with the French public. Europe cannily created a jazz version of “La Marseillaise” that the band played without fail at every stop. Many musical historians credit Captain Europe and his band with bringing jazz to France and the wider continent of Europe. Sadly, one the band’s drummers fatally stabbed Europe shortly after their return from France.
[You can now get the third book, No Hero’s Welcome, in my First World War and 1920s trilogy here or here. And guess what? I’ve lowered the price of my None of Us the Same ebook to only $2.99 which you can get here and here.]