1918: The Story of the Harlem Hellfighters

PODCAST (EPISODE 310): New York’s 369th Infantry Regiment was America’s first black regiment engaged in World War I.  The world knew them as the Harlem Hellfighters.

On February 17, 1919, the Hellfighters – who had spent much of the year 1918 on the frontline – marched up Fifth Avenue to an unbelievable show of support and love.

The Harlem Hellfighters were made up of young African-American men from New York City and the surrounding area, its enthusiastic recruits made up of those who had arrived in the city during a profound period of migration from the Reconstruction South to (only slightly) more tolerant Northern cities.

They were not able to serve in regular American military units because of segregation, but because of an unusual series of events, the regiment instead fought alongside the French in the trenches, for 191 days, more than any other American unit.

They were known around the world for their valor, ferocity and bravery. This is the story of New York musicians, red caps, budding painters, chauffeurs and teenagers just out of school, serving their country in a way that would become legendary.

FEATURING the voices of World War I veterans telling their own stories. PLUS some brilliant music and a story from Barack Obama (okay it’s just a clip of the former president but still.)


Photograph shows group portrait of men recruited for the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, later known as the 369th Infantry Regiment (the Harlem Hellfighters), wearing armbands. Library of Congress.
James Reese Europe, who both fought on the front lines AND brought jazz to France.
Henry Johnson, whose skills on the battlefield earned him the French Croix de guerre in his lifetime — and a U.S. Medal of Honor many decades later.
Horace Pippin (American, West Chester, Pennsylvania 1888–1946 West Chester, Pennsylvania) Self-Portrait, 1944. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Jane Kendall Gingrich, 1982 (1982.55.7)

Visit the Smithsonian Archive of American Art to explore the journal of painter Horace Pippin who fought on the front lines during the summer and fall of 1918.

From the journal of Horace Pippin, featuring illustrations among his observations.
US National Archives
The 369th were the first regiment to march beneath the Victory Arch, installed near Madison Square Park. Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
US National Archives
US National Archives

From the New York Times the following day after the parade:

New York’s negro soldiers, bringing with them from France one of the bravest records achieved by any organization in the war, marched amidst waving flags and cheering crowds yesterday from Twenty-third Street and Fifth Avenue to 145th Street and Lenox Avenue.”

“At Thirty-Fourth Street the men marched under a shower of cigarettes and candy, and such tokens were pitched at them at other points in the line, but the files did not waver for an instant.

US National Archives

The complete version of the 1977 film Men of Bronze, detailing the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, directed by Bill Miles, is available to watch on YouTube.

President Obama awards the Medal of Honor posthumously to two World War I veterans, Private Henry Johnson (featured in this show) and Sergeant William Shemin.

From Harlem to the Rhine by Arthur West Little
Harlem Rattlers and the Great War by Jeffrey Sammons and John Howard Morrow
A Life In Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe by Reid Badger
Lost Battalions by Richard Slotkin
A More Unbending Battle by Peter Nelson
We Return Fighting from the National Museum of African American History and Culture
When Pride Met Courage by Walter Dean Myers


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3 replies on “1918: The Story of the Harlem Hellfighters”

Great untold story! Once again you guys captured and relay American history seldom explored. As an African American is painful to hear these ugly stories of prejudice and racism inflicted on our brothers. However thur it all these men carried on with bravery and distinction,thier sacrifice ensured our freedom. Thank you for taking the time and doing the painstaking job of research to bring this story to life. I applaud and appreciate your interest in bringing us these great New York events. Continue the excellent work and I await to hear of more interesting stories of New Yorkers of color.

I was at the 2015 Medal of Honor ceremony in the White House as a relative of the other recipient,Sgt.Wm.Shemin,who was my father’s cousin. Both he and Johnson were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor at that ceremony. It was quite an honor to be part of that ceremony.

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