By Douglas Bristol, University of Southern Mississippi
A Surprising Military Parade
On February 17, 1919, black soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment marched through the streets of New York City past cheering crowds. The military parade was led by Lt. James Europe’s band, which had made itself and the new American music—jazz—famous throughout France. The returning veterans marched the length of Manhattan, beginning on Fifth Avenue, where they passed banners that read: OUR HEROES—WELCOME HOME. The mood grew even more high-spirited when they reached Lenox Avenue and began marching through Harlem. When Jim Europe’s band of sixty brass and reeds, trumpets and drums swung into the song, “Here Comes My Daddy Now,” all Harlem went wild. The parade ended at the armory of the 15th New York (Colored) Infantry Regiment because the 369th had started as a National Guard unit.
The Impact of the National Guard
The 15th New York illustrates the positive impact the National Guard has had on African Americans historically by letting them fight for their country and by training black officers to lead them. Politics had a dominant influence at the beginning and ending of this story. In response to lobbying by the African American community in Harlem, the New York State Legislature passed a bill on June 2, 1913 authorizing a black National Guard regiment. The Governor appointed his former campaign manager William Hayward, who was white, to serve as the commanding officer. Haywood turned out to be a good choice because, in addition to his experience in politics, he had been a colonel in the Nebraska National Guard. Haywood also recognized the importance of having black officers and promoted their training from the start.
Valor Fighting in World War I
In April 1917 the U.S. declared war on Germany, and the men of the 15th New York began a legendary journey on which they faced discrimination even as they won fame. The 15th New York reported for training at a camp in New York in May 1917, but the following October, they were sent to a camp in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where racial tensions led to their rapid deployment. They arrived in France on December 27, 1917, only to discover they had no orders. Haywood made a personal appeal to American Expeditionary Force Commander John Pershing that his unit be reassigned to combat duty. Pershing, having already promised the French reinforcements, sent the all-black unit to the 16th Division of the Fourth French Army. Beginning in April 1918, the renamed 369th Infantry Regiment remained in combat for 191 days, longer than any other U.S. unit in the war. The Germans, impressed with their prowess, gave them the nickname the Harlem Hellfighters. The French government decorated the entire unit with the Croix du Guerre, and in addition, gave 170 members of the 369th individual medals for their valor.
Colonel Benjamin Davis, Sr. Take Command
The unit survived demobilization after the war by rejoining the National Guard as the 369th Coast Artillery. Despite always having some black officers, the 369th had never had a black commanding officer after twenty-five years, and New York’s progressive governor Herbert Lehman lobbied the army in 1938 to appoint Col. Benjamin Davis, Sr. as the commander. Davis had much to recommend him. He was the highest ranking black officer in the army, and he had spent five years as an instructor with the Ohio National Guard. The army made him commander of the 369th on April 27, 1938.
When the U.S. began mobilizing for war in 1940, Davis proved he was the right leader for the unit. Governor Lehman had asked the War Department to convert some of the state’s National Guard units, including the 396th, to antiaircraft units, only to be turned down. Davis took the issue up in person with the army chief of staff George Marshall, and warned him of the potentially negative reaction from the African American community if it seemed the army had decided that black units were unsuited for combat. Marshall believed Davis could oversee the conversion and signed off on it.
The First Black General
Davis’ success at the job attracted favorable notice in the black press and led to an unexpected promotion. When the promotions list appeared in late September 1940, Davis’ name did not appear among the 84 new generals, and with less than a year before he reached the mandatory retirement age for his rank of colonel, it looked as though Davis had lost his chance to become the first black general. But 1940 was also an election year. The Republican presidential nominee Wendell Willkie made civil rights an issue in the campaign by promising black voters that he would end segregation in the military. In turn, black newspaper editors at the Pittsburgh Courier and the Amsterdam News took up the issue of fair treatment in the military by saying Davis should be put in charge of an all-black division. President Roosevelt, running for an unprecedented third term, worried about losing black support. The week before the election, Roosevelt disregarded the objections raised by his Secretary of War Henry Stimson and approved the promotion of Davis to brigadier general. The National Guard had, therefore, given Davis the exposure necessary for a successful campaign to break the glass ceiling in the army officer corps.
Honors and Officers
In conclusion, the National Guard played an important role in expanding the opportunities of African Americans for honors and officers. At a time when military leaders thought African Americans were best assigned to unskilled labor battalions, the National Guard provided African Americans in New York one of the few opportunities to fight in combat and be led by black officers during World War I. The celebrated exploits of the 369th Infantry Regiment on the battlefields of France disproved claims that African Americans did not make good soldiers and gave hope to African Americans everywhere. The National Guard also kept the unit alive as the military shrank following the Great War. Moreover, the tradition of black officers in the New York National Guard, established by its first commander William Haywood, set a precedent for New York Governor Lehman to call for a black commanding officer and ultimately secure the appointment of Col. Benjamin Davis. In turn, the political aspects of Davis’ appointment help explain why the National Guard had such a positive impact on African Americans. The National Guard units drew on community ties and political connections at the state level to persuade the army to accept black combat units and a black general. Consequently, the experience of black soldiers in the 369th is significant not only for African American history, but also for military history. The story of the 369th demonstrates that the National Guard, during World War I and the 1930s, helped bring needed reforms to the army.
Douglas Bristol is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Southern Mississippi and a Fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of war and Society. His most recent book, for which he was a contributing co-editor, is Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II.
First image: The 369th in action. After being detached and seconded to the French, they wore the Adrian helmet, while retaining the rest of their U.S. uniform. Seen here at Séchault, France on 29 September 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, they wear the U.S. Army-issue Brodie helmet, correct for that time. This image is a work of a U.S. Army employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harlem_Hell_Fighters.jpg [accessed on 01252020].
Second image: Soldiers of the 369th (15th N.Y.), awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action, 1919. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Storms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, Cpl. T. W. Taylor. By an unknown photographer – ARC Identifier: 26431282 US National Archives website [accessed 10252020].
Third image: Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. watches a Signal Corps crew erecting poles, somewhere in France. August 8, 1944. This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 531202. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_O._Davis_Sr.#/media/File:Benjamin_o_davis.jpg [accessed on 01252020].
Further reading: Jeffrey T. Sammons & John H. Morrow, Jr., Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality (University Press of Kansas, 2014).