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.
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.
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.”
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.