[Blackstudies-l] Race/Related: Honoring WWI Forgotten Harlem Hellfighters

Maria Helena Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Sat Aug 21 10:17:14 EDT 2021


Descendants say the soldiers carried the scars of brutal combat and
remained second class citizens in the U.S.
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August 21, 2021
The descendants of Sgt. Leander Willett, who fought in World War I:
Zakharii Willetts, Debra Willett, Kheli Willetts and Leander Willetts
IV.Desiree
Rios for The New York Times
An Exceptional Unit of Black Soldiers

By Precious Fondren

For most of her life Debra Willett had a vague idea about who her
grandfather was. She knew he had fought in France in World War I at some
point.

But she didn’t grasp the importance of what her grandfather, who died in
1956, had accomplished until she began doing some genealogy research in
1998.

Sgt. Leander Willett served with the distinguished 369th Infantry Regiment,
commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters, the most celebrated regiment of
Black soldiers during World War I. Unlike many Black soldiers who were
limited to manual labor and custodial duties, the Harlem Hellfighters made
it to the front lines. There were celebrated for their bravery, helping to
change the perception of Black soldiers as inferior.

As time passed, however, the Hellfighters, who numbered in the thousands,
were largely forgotten. Somehow, they did not maintain the same historical
prestige as the Tuskegee Airmen
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/a/5jAzu0vFjzZfv0dgrAhnOQ~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRjA2HmP0TTaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuaGlzdG9yeS5jb20vdG9waWNzL3dvcmxkLXdhci1paS90dXNrZWdlZS1haXJtZW4_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTA4MjEmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9Mzg0Njkmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTY2ODk2JnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgphH-bcIGHSJaFdUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>,
the country’s first Black aviation unit, or the Montford Point Marines
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/a/t1fa1jtn2rJn8ASayq35kQ~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRjA2HmP0S5aHR0cHM6Ly9tb250Zm9yZHBvaW50bWFyaW5lcy5vcmcvP2NhbXBhaWduX2lkPTM3JmVtYz1lZGl0X3JyXzIwMjEwODIxJmluc3RhbmNlX2lkPTM4NDY5Jm5sPXJhY2UlMkZyZWxhdGVkJnJlZ2lfaWQ9NDI3NDA4OTcmc2VnbWVudF9pZD02Njg5NiZ0ZT0xJnVzZXJfaWQ9MzkzOGYxN2Q4MTgyYTIyZmRlMTQ2N2ZmOWQwYmI1YzVXA255dEIKYR_m3CBh0iWhXVIQbGltYUBnZW5lc2VvLmVkdVgEAAAAAA~~>,
the first Black marines, though the Harlem Hellfighters preceded both
groups.

Although they returned home to cheers after the war, the Hellfighters,
their descendants say, carried the scars of brutal combat and, once the
cheering had stopped, the disappointment of remaining second class
citizens, subjected to racism and discrimination, in the very country they
had served and defended.

“As I understand from my aunt and my father he never ever spoke about World
War I,” said Ms. Willett, 63, who lives in Oyster Bay on Long Island. “My
father thinks that the reason he didn’t speak about it was the fact that he
was bayoneted and gassed and it left such a horrible impression upon him.”

She added that “because he was African American this was really nothing
spoken about or celebrated.”
The Harlem Hellfighters were the most celebrated Black regiment in World
War I but were largely forgotten after returning to the United States,
where they faced racism and discrimination.via National Archives

Until now. The Harlem Hellfighters, largely overlooked for more than a
century, will be awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. The U.S. Senate
recently passed legislation to give them the award, and President Biden is
expected to sign the bill as early as this month.
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“My vision is that the people in America should know about the Harlem
Hellfighters as well as they know about the Tuskegee Airmen,” said
Representative Thomas Suozzi, Democrat of New York, who sponsored the medal
legislation along with Representative Adriano Espaillat, Democrat of New
York. (The Tuskegee Airmen received the medal in 2007, followed by the
Montford Point Marines in 2011.)

“I think that these are examples of great Americans who served their
country and who never received the proper recognition,” Mr. Suozzi said.
“And it’s never too late to do the right thing.”

Recently, the descendants of the Harlem Hellfighters, military veterans and
elected officials gathered at the 369th Regiment Armory in Harlem to
celebrate the passing of the bill. Mr. Suozzi, Mr. Espaillat, Senator Chuck
Schumer of New York, and more made endearing speeches about the resilience
of the Hellfighters.

In 1959, a diligent and curious soldier
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/CCettdxzZ4R9xI4Vc2g3TA~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRjA2HmP4QAAWh0dHBzOi8vd3d3Lm55dGltZXMuY29tLzIwMTQvMTAvMDMvbnlyZWdpb24vYW4tb3ZlcnNpZ2h0LW9mLW1pbGl0YXJ5LWhpc3RvcnktaXMtYWRkcmVzc2VkLWluLWhhcmxlbS5odG1sP2NhbXBhaWduX2lkPTM3JmVtYz1lZGl0X3JyXzIwMjEwODIxJmluc3RhbmNlX2lkPTM4NDY5Jm5sPXJhY2UlMkZyZWxhdGVkJnJlZ2lfaWQ9NDI3NDA4OTcmc2VnbWVudF9pZD02Njg5NiZ0ZT0xJnVzZXJfaWQ9MzkzOGYxN2Q4MTgyYTIyZmRlMTQ2N2ZmOWQwYmI1YzVXA255dEIKYR_m3CBh0iWhXVIQbGltYUBnZW5lc2VvLmVkdVgEAAAAAA~~>
discovered a room in the armory where artifacts of the Hellfighters,
including photographs, had been abandoned. The items were cleaned and later
displayed, sparking a sort of rediscovery of the once-famous unit.
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But even descendants, like Ms. Willett, remained unaware of the full scope
of the Hellfighters’ achievements.
The 369th Infantry Regiment memorial, across the street from the 369th
Armory in HarlemDesiree Rios for The New York Times

The Harlem Hellfighters were born out of the 15th Infantry Regiment of the
New York National Guard in 1916. When the United States entered into World
War I, the unit became the 369th Regiment.
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During that time period, white military leaders, still under the influence
of pervasive racist beliefs, thought Black soldiers would not fare well on
the battlefield, but could be useful abroad in other ways, so the unit was
sent to South Carolina to train.

While stationed there, the soldiers — many of them strangers to the overt
racism of the South — were barraged with racial slurs from their white
peers and local citizens. Their commander told them to respond
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to threats with “fortitude and without retaliation.”

“In the North things were somewhat better than they were in the South,”
said Dr. Krewasky Salter, a historian and museum director who worked with
Mr. Suozzi’s team to make sure the bill was historically accurate. “So when
they came down South they weren’t necessarily willing to accept what they
were receiving.”

When the soldiers arrived in Europe, they were relegated to building forts,
roads, digging ditches, and other menial jobs. Their leader, Commander
William Hayward, repeatedly requested that they serve on the battlefield
instead.

Since American white soldiers were unwilling to fight alongside the
Hellfighters, the Black soldiers were eventually assigned to the 16th
Division of the French Army.

The Hellfighters spent 191 days in combat, which is believed to be longer
than any other American unit in the war, according to multiple accounts
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/a/9tfrr5uPMK3hMlGyEpt8tw~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRjA2HmP0TgaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuaGlzdG9yeS5jb20vdG9waWNzL3dvcmxkLXdhci1pL3RoZS1oYXJsZW0taGVsbGZpZ2h0ZXJzLXZpZGVvP2NhbXBhaWduX2lkPTM3JmVtYz1lZGl0X3JyXzIwMjEwODIxJmluc3RhbmNlX2lkPTM4NDY5Jm5sPXJhY2UlMkZyZWxhdGVkJnJlZ2lfaWQ9NDI3NDA4OTcmc2VnbWVudF9pZD02Njg5NiZ0ZT0xJnVzZXJfaWQ9MzkzOGYxN2Q4MTgyYTIyZmRlMTQ2N2ZmOWQwYmI1YzVXA255dEIKYR_m3CBh0iWhXVIQbGltYUBnZW5lc2VvLmVkdVgEAAAAAA~~>.
Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts were the first Americans, Black or white,
to receive the Croix de Guerre, a French award given to those who show
immense acts of heroism in battle.

James Reese Europe, a musician who joined the regiment as bandleader,
introduced jazz to the French. His band played for soldiers at relief
stations and in hospitals.

“My father used to tell me how famous my grandfather was and I was too
young to appreciate it,” said James Reese Europe III, 65, at the armory.
“Before the 100th commemoration of World War I came about, people were
looking me up because of my name. And only then was when I started really
looking into it.”

[Read the rest of the article here
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If you want to map inequality in New York, you can just count trees.

By John Leland
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/oPzAAhpXiBsPS5mS1RufYA~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRjA2HmP0TfaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wOC8yMC9ueXJlZ2lvbi9jbGltYXRlLWluZXF1YWxpdHktbnljLmh0bWw_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTA4MjEmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9Mzg0Njkmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTY2ODk2JnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgphH-bcIGHSJaFdUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>
[image: Article Image]

Douglas Segars for The New York Times
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/4Qwg4l8z_Ws1GS2o-cJvjg~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRjA2HmP0ToaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wOC8xOS9hcnRzL2Rlc2lnbi9icmFkbGV5LWFydGlzdC1rYXJtYS1ob3VzdG9uLmh0bWw_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTA4MjEmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9Mzg0Njkmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTY2ODk2JnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgphH-bcIGHSJaFdUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>
Is
Peter Bradley Ready for Round 2 in the Limelight?

He rose to the top in the 1970s with a groundbreaking, racially integrated
art show in Houston, then all but vanished from view. Now he’s making a
comeback.

By Katya Kazakina
<https://nl.nytimes.com/f/newsletter/4Qwg4l8z_Ws1GS2o-cJvjg~~/AAAAAQA~/RgRjA2HmP0ToaHR0cHM6Ly93d3cubnl0aW1lcy5jb20vMjAyMS8wOC8xOS9hcnRzL2Rlc2lnbi9icmFkbGV5LWFydGlzdC1rYXJtYS1ob3VzdG9uLmh0bWw_Y2FtcGFpZ25faWQ9MzcmZW1jPWVkaXRfcnJfMjAyMTA4MjEmaW5zdGFuY2VfaWQ9Mzg0Njkmbmw9cmFjZSUyRnJlbGF0ZWQmcmVnaV9pZD00Mjc0MDg5NyZzZWdtZW50X2lkPTY2ODk2JnRlPTEmdXNlcl9pZD0zOTM4ZjE3ZDgxODJhMjJmZGUxNDY3ZmY5ZDBiYjVjNVcDbnl0QgphH-bcIGHSJaFdUhBsaW1hQGdlbmVzZW8uZWR1WAQAAAAA>

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