Harlem Hellfighters Receive a Congressional Gold Medal

image: courtesy of pbs.org

An all-Black unit of soldiers who fought during World War I will receive a Congressional Gold Medal for their distinguished service, NBC News reported.

The “Harlem Hellfighters” was the nickname for the members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, an infantry unit made up of Black soldiers, a majority of whom were from New York.

During the combat in Europe, the U.S. military refused to issue them weapons and the Hellfighters used French weapons, helmets, belts, and pouches while wearing their U.S. uniforms during the conflict.

Given the title Hommes de Bronze (Men of Bronze) by the French, the regiment’s members spent 191 days in combat, which is reportedly more than any other Americans, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Though they lost one-third of the entire regiment, prestigious honors from the French military were bestowed upon them, including earning 11 French citations and the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration typically bestowed on foreign allies. The Hellfighterswas instrumental in the US being victorious in World War I. 

The group also received acclaim for their 369th Regimental Army Band. Led by bandleader Lt. James Reese Europe, the collection of musicians are credited with introducing jazz to French audiences. 

Although they were not allowed to participate in the 1917 farewell procession, the Hellfighters took part in the homecoming parade on February 17, 1919, on Fifth Avenue, in New York. The soldiers donned their decorated regalia to a crowd of hundreds of thousands.

President Joe Biden signed the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act last month and replicas of the prestigious medal will be awarded to the families of members of the 369th Infantry Regiment.

See Also

Rep. Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, co-sponsored the bill and noted the Hellfighter’s significant accomplishments.

“The Harlem Hellfighters risked life and limb in defense of an America that discriminated against them,” Beatty said. “Yet the Hellfighters helped liberate Western Europe and secure victory for the Allied Forces,” she continued. “More than 100 years after these brave men fought so valiantly, I am proud to see my congressional colleagues and President Biden honoring them for their exemplary service on behalf of a very grateful nation.”  

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in a statement said “these brave Black men, who, even as they faced segregation and prejudice at home, risked their lives to defend our freedoms overseas.”     

Both chambers of Congress approved the commendation this summer in a bipartisan effort that drew dozens of co-sponsors. The bill sponsors included Beatty, Gillibrand, and other members of New York’s delegation.

Newsletter

Sign up for the EBONY Newsletter

Newsletter

Sign up for the EBONY Newsletter

When you sign up for the EBONY newsletter, you’ll be the first to know about all the latest news and updates that are important to you. Gain access to exclusive interviews, videos, special events, and product giveaways delivered right to your inbox!