The bravery and resilience displayed by the 369th Infantry Regiment—also known as the Harlem Hellfighters—during World War I forever changed the landscape of American history and their impact and influence will reverberate for generations to come. ABC7 reported a bill has been proposed to award the unit with a Congressional Gold Medal; an honor that is coming more than a century after their service.
The 369th Infantry Regiment was established in 1913 and its cultivation didn’t come without adversity. The Black community within Harlem wanted to create their own military unit within the neighborhood, however, they were met with opposition from white political leaders who continually blocked attempts to develop the unit. Governor William Sulzer passed legislation in 1913 for the creation of a Black National Guard regiment. After the unit was established, the men continued to endure blatant racism. Before embarking on the journey to serve in Europe, the Harlem Hellfighters were barred from participating in the New York National Guard’s farewell parade because they were Black.
The unit fought under the 16th Division of the French army because many white American soldiers refused to fight alongside Black soldiers. The Harlem Hellfighters never let the hostility derail them from their passion to serve. They spent more time in continuous combat than other American units that were the same size. In Europe, the French government hailed them as heroes following the war and 171 members of the regiment were honored with the Croix de Guerre medal. Some of the men received military awards from the U.S. and a victory parade was hosted for the Harlem Hellfighters on Feb. 17, 1919. Following the short-lived celebration, they were subjected to the racism and discrimination endured by Black Americans. As time passed, many of their contributions were masked.
Congressman Tom Suozzi has introduced a bill to award the Harlem Hellfighters with a Congressional Gold Medal to honor their bravery and keep their legacy alive. “They never lost an inch of ground, suffered many injuries but never had anyone taken as a POW,” Suozzi said in a statement, according to the news outlet. “A great failure of this country is how we treated African Americans throughout our history, and this is just another example of it.” The proposed legislation has received support from a group of elected officials that includes Assemblyman Keith Wright, whose grandfather was a member of the 369th Infantry Regiment, and former United States Representative Charles Rangel who is a veteran.
News about the proposed bill comes a year after it was announced filmmaker Elegance Bratton will direct a documentary about the Harlem Hellfighters.