At the onset of World War I, any African American that wished to fight had to enlist in the French or Canadian armies. This all changed with the 369th Infantry Regiment.
First constituted as the 15th New York Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard on June 2, 1913, the 369th Infantry was organized on June 29, 1916, called into Federal service on July 25, 1917 at Camp Whitman, New York. At Camp Whitman, the 369th learned basics such as military courtesy, how to address officers, and how to salute along with how to stay low and out of sight during attacks and how to march in formation. After training, the 369th was split into three battalions that guarded rail lines, construction sites and other camps throughout New York.
On October 8, 1917, the 369th traveled to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to receive training in actual combat. The men of the 369th encountered hostility and racism from local shopkeepers in Spartanburg throughout training, although fellow soldiers often came to their defense. On December 27, the 369th arrived in France.
The 369th encountered more racism from their fellow soldiers in France, who never treated them as equals. The US Army assigned the 369th to the French Army on April 8, 1918, because many white American soldiers refused to fight with black soldiers. Although they continued to wear US uniforms, the men of the 369th were issued French weapons, helmets, and brown leather belts and pouches.
The French treated the men of the 369th as equals and the following month, the “Harlem Hellfighters” were fighting in the trenches on the Western Front. By the end of their infantry campaign, they were present in the Champagne – Marne Offensive, Meuse – Argonne Offensive, Champagne 1918 and Alsace 1918 campaigns and distinguished battles such as Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. Serving nearly six months on the front lines, they earned many distinguished awards including France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre.
The Harlem Hellfighters returned to New York City as heroes at the end of the war. On February 17, 1919, thousands lined the streets and cheered as the 369th marched from 61st Street up into Harlem as they forever changed the white American public’s opinion of black soldiers.