Remembering the Harlem Hellfighters of World War I

February 27, 2018  - by 

by Kayla Jackson

The story of the African American man and woman has been laced with the trauma of enslavement, the patience through persecution, and the continual effort to push past the discrimination and racism and walk together as equals in the United States and throughout the world. One incredible example of African Americans rising above opposition were the many African American men and women, including the Harlem Hellfighters, who courageously fought during World War I despite the discrimination and persecution they faced because of the color of their skin. 

African American soldiers served bravely despite descrimination against them in World War I.
The Selective Service Act

On May 18, 1917, the Selective Service Act was passed by Congress, permitting men of color to enroll in the military. Though racism and discrimination was still prevalent, the need for more American soldiers overruled any societal norms and preferences.

African American men heeded the call with nearly 380,000 individuals enlisted for the chance to serve their country. These men were ready and able to fight, but because of the color of their skin, only 1 in 10 were selected to fight in combat with the remaining 9 in 10 were mandated to perform menial chores and hard labor.

Many American officers believed these men lacked intelligence and the ability to fight courageously. Regardless of where they were placed, these men served because of their patriotism and love for their country. They held hope that their service would render a more fair and equal treatment for themselves and their families when they returned home.

Harlem Hellfighters

One group of men who served on the front lines was the 369th infantry of the 93rd division, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters and Men of Bronze, nicknames given to them by the French. These men were known for their fierce combat, fighting longer and harder than any other infantry.

Barbara Lewis Burger, a retired archivist from the National Archives, wrote of this group, “They never lost a man captured, never lost a foot of ground to the Germans, and was the first Allied unit to cross the Rhine River during the Allied offensive. In recognition of its bravery under fire, the French government awarded the regiment with the country’s military decoration, the Croix de Guerre. In addition, 171 men of the regiment were also presented with an individual Croix de Guerre for their valor.”

How the Harlem Hellfighters from World War I fit in with black history month.

The tenacity and toughness of the Harlem Hellfighters continue with us today as we remember and honor their lives and the lives of all who valiantly served in the military. As we continue with the celebration of the end of World War I, we encourage you to search through the records available to us. As you begin to search out the stories of your ancestors, visit FamilySearch’s African American Records and Research home page to find record collections, inspirational stories of African Americans throughout history, and other helpful resources.

Remembering World War I

Search new WWI family history records on FamilySearch to find your soldier ancestors.

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  1. I am a retired military officer with 20 years of military service in various capacities to include a pilot flying airplanes in Vietnam 1969 and 1971. Many of my friends are black and not just limited to officers, some of my friends are Non-Commissioned Officers. When I was a commander at Ft. Benning, Georgia, I received a call from a friend I met in 1967. He was a Sergeant E-5 at that time. I was an E-4. I received his telephone call at my office and invited him to meet me at the parking lot of the Officer’s Club. We met with a salute and a genuine hug after. He was now a Sergeant E-7 and invited him in to the Officer’s Club for lunch. Many great black people were in my military history. I will never forget them and wish each of them the very best.

  2. When I was in school, we celebrated both George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays on separate days in February, on the exact dates of each. We had both days off from school. Then, two things happened: it was decided that was too many school days missed and teachers preferred school holidays to all be celebrated on Mondays, giving more three day weekends. So, Washington and Lincoln’s birthdays began to be celebrated on the third Monday in Feb. How sad now that Lincoln’s birthday is no longer remembered separately from “all the other Presidents”. The day was never intended to be for any other Presidents than those two. I actually think that is officially the case now. Let’s not forget Lincoln!

    1. I was fortunate to serve in the military as a US Army aviator for 18 years. Two years in training to become a commissioned officer and aviator that included flying fixed wing aircraft as well as rotary wing aircraft. I completed two tours in Vietnam in several aviation operations. I served as a unit commander at Ft. Benning, Georgia as well as a member of the staff of the Officer Candidate Battalion. After completing the Infantry Officer Advance Course, I was released from active duty and became a member of the Utah National Guard where I served as the Executive Officer of the Attack Helicopter Unit for a period of three years. For six years, I served on the Adjutant General’s Staff and transported VIP’s, etc. in a C-12 (Beach Craft Super KingAir 200). The military has been a great blessing to me. Few people have had the privilege to serve in the capacity I was assigned to. I enjoy the retirement benefits I earned by serving in the military for 20 years. Few people have enjoyed serving in the military for twenty years considering the many draftees, etc. that were required to serve for a short period of time.