While Emmanuel Macron has just celebrated the commemorations of the entry of the United States into the First World War, the fate of the 15th infantry regiment of the National guards of New York, composed of African Americans remains unknown to this day. Indeed, the voluntary soldiers were present in the trenches to help the French, their bravery was greeted by the French Army, but unfortunately, not so much from their own country, the United States because of their skin color…
Who were these remarquable soldiers?
They were businessmen, lawyers, boxers and job seekers. The entire population of Harlem and the various districts of New York was enroled in the 1916 National guard of New York to go to war. They had to fight two battles: the first was the Front like any other soldier and the second, involved many challenges and obstacles, that of discrimination and segregation against them from the American military department.
Named the “Hellfighters” by the Germans, 500 of them were awarded with the France’s War Cross, but in Washington their exploits were not saluted. Their biggest enemy was their hierarchy.
Even in the military Front, they were segregated.
At the beginning of the war, it was very difficult to have both white people and african americans fighting alongside each other as a team, since the US itself was segregated. That is the reason why those men were transferred to the French Army and fought under the French uniform. Under this one condition, they gained some respect from the American administration throughout the war.
During the year 1918, the african american soldiers spent 191 consecutive days fighting in the Front, a record for an American unit and from that point on, they went from victory to victory. It is said that at the end of that same year, they did not lose an inch of ground.
The hour of glory finally arrived on February 1919 where a sumptuous parade on the streets of New York City was held. The celebration walk was held from Fifth avenue to Harlem. A few days later, the regiment finally got demobilized and these african americans veterans did not get the regards the army could have given to them, unfortunately. They received much less rewards than they actually deserved compared to how their accomplishments were acknowledged by the french.
Some encountered tragic destinies…
A certain number of these heroes died during the war. During the night of May 14th 1918, Henry Johnson (1892-1929) and Needham Roberts (1901-1949) were in station in the forest of Argonne when they were attacked by about twenty German soldiers. Fleeing was not an option for them. Johnson defended himself as much as possible with whichever weapons he had, initially grenades, then the stick of his rifle, his Bolo dagger, and finally his fists.
He managed to send the enemies running only by himself, not without having massacred a good number of them, and saved his companion. At the cost of twenty and one wounds. he earned the nickname of Black Death and the French Military Cross with star and palm of bronze. He lived on to the late 1920s on the streets, forgotten of all, never getting the American military honors that he truly deserved.
It is only in 2015 that he was greeted by the United States
Barack Obama was the one who, nearly one hundred years later, granted Henry Johnson the highest military distinction posthumously. It is the proof that even after the end of the war, the successive american political administrations had great difficulties in acknowledging the bravery and the contribution of these african-americans soldiers during the world wars.
Explore the History of Harlem, home of the brave heroes
Learn about Harlem from its origins as a rural Dutch community to its transformation into a summer retreat for New York’s most prominent families. Take a journey into the past and see the African-American Mecca for writers and artists at the turn of the century. Hear about Harlem’s troubled past during the 1960’s and 1970’s and view its present day community beam with pride as with the “Harlem renaissance” period.
See famous NYC sights and landmarks such as Columbia University, City College, Morningside Heights, the Morris Jumel Mansion, Sylvan Terrace, Strivers Row, the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Sugar Hill, Duke Ellington’s apartment, the famous 125th street and many more. End your tour of Harlem by joining a local congregation* for the Sunday worship mass service and experience the soul-stirring power of gospel music with a live gospel choir! To book the tour, CLICK HERE