Members of the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment, who fought in World War I (Courtesy photo)
Members of the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment, who fought in World War I (Courtesy photo)

The Harlem Hellfighters, the all-Black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I, will join what is becoming a pantheon of elite Black combat units with the award of the Congressional Gold Medal.

President Biden signed the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act on Aug. 25, to honor the servicemen who served as a regiment of the New York National Guard.

The bill passed the Senate in August and the House companion bill passed in June. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), architect of the bill, hailed the bipartisan action that resulted in the bill’s congressional passage.

“The long overdue Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act pays homage to these brave Black men who risked their lives overseas to defend our freedoms, only to come home to segregation and racism. I want to applaud President Biden for signing this bill into law, and thank my House colleagues Representatives Suozzi and Espaillat for their outstanding partnership on this legislation.”

The Harlem Hellfighters spent 191 days in combat, more than any other similarly sized American regiment.

In 1918, the U.S. Army assigned the Hellfighters to the French army because many white American soldiers refused to go into combat alongside Black Americans.

But the men earned the sobriquets “Hommes de Bronze” (Men of Bronze) from the French and “Hollenkampfer” (Hellfighters) from the Germans due to their doggedness and strength. The Hellfighters earned 11 French citations and a unit Croix de Guerre and 170 soldiers were individually awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

However, despite their courage and devotion, the Hellfighters faced prejudice and racism upon their return to the United States.

Among the most celebrated of the Harlem Hellfighters was Pvt. Henry Johnson, a former Albany, N.Y. railway porter, who earned the nickname “Black Death” for his actions in combat in France.

In May 1918, Johnson and another soldier, Pvt.  Needham Roberts, fought off a German patrol while on guard duty.

After a German grenade incapacitated Roberts, Johnson continued to fight with the butt of his weapon and a bolo knife, according to Army website Johnson killed at least four German soldiers, wounded as many as 30, and sustained at least 21 injuries himself. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross.

The United States Congress gives the Congressional Gold Medal to those who have “performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field, long after the achievement.”

There have been only two other Congressional Gold Medals awarded to distinguished African American military units: the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 and the Montford Point Marines in 2011, both from World War II.

“These patriots gave their all to America’s enduring struggle to secure global freedom while simultaneously facing racism from the very nation they swore an oath to protect,” said Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.).

“It is never too late to do the right thing, and I am proud to work alongside Congressman Suozzi, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand to make today possible and honor these brave patriots with one of our nation’s highest military honors.”

Sarafina Wright –Washington Informer Staff Writer

Sarafina Wright is a staff writer at the Washington Informer where she covers business, community events, education, health and politics. She also serves as the editor-in-chief of the WI Bridge, the Informer’s...

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