A visit to the 369th Historical Society in Harlem offers a broad view of African-Americans who participated in U.S.-engaged wars. The 369th showcases the merits of African-Americans who served in the U.S. military from World War I to the present through its collection of artifacts, documents and photographs.
“The mission of the 369th was raised as an infantry regiment made up basically of African-Americans from the New York metropolitan area, as well as from Alabama, Louisiana and other Southern states; and to go to Europe, where they fought as a regiment in the war. They came back [to America] as one of the most decorated units out of World War I,” says Major General Nathaniel James, founder of the 369th Historical Society and the first African-American to obtain major general as federal recognition in the state of New York.
The 369th Regiment, originally called the 15th New York Infantry, a National Guard Unit, was the first “colored” regiment to engage in the war and became the first African-American unit shipped out to France to fight in WWI. (It was shipped out early because of racial tensions that flared during training.) “Commander William Hayward stated that if it wasn’t for the 369th, the Germans would have crashed into Paris. Because of the courage they displayed, the Germans gave the 369th the name the Hell Fighters,” adds James.
In 1918, the entire unit of the 369th and 171 individual soldiers were awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for their gallantry in the war. Upon returning home, the 369th Regiment received a heroes’ parade in Harlem and marched up Fifth Avenue, but they received no recognition from the U.S. government.
Part of the 369th Armory was built in 1922 to house the 369th Regiment returning from its World War I victory. The armory opened to the public in 1932; and in 1960, the 369th Historical Society was established.
“Here, people can learn a lot about the history of African-Americans in the military, which is sometimes lost in all the shuffle,” says Lieutenant Colonel Francis W. Kairson Jr., a member of the 369th Society and a commander who took a 369th unit into Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. “It’s also a place to be reminded that African-Americans have contributed to the history of this country through all the years, but that history has been lost or mislaid.”
Covering one wall of the offices of the Historical Society is a collection of oversized black-and-white photographs of uniformed soldiers who participated in WWI. In the 369th Hall of Fame stands a replica of the monument that was dedicated in memory of the 369th Harlem Hell Fighters and erected in Sechault, France, in 1997. There are hundreds of photographs and dozens of artifacts, papers and other items, including bugles from The 369th Regimental Band and a copy of From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York’s Colored Volunteers, a book first published in 1920, that gives a chronology of the 369th Infantry.
Sergeant Herbert Trimble, who served in the Vietnam War and is the curator and archivist of the 369th, says the museum has original machine guns made in Germany in 1916; a Japanese samurai sword made in 1954; a silk handkerchief donated by one of the mothers of a fallen soldier who served in WWI, dated 1918; and an original uniform of a WWI soldier. “We have a ton of archival history and memorabilia here, not to talk about a minimum of five thousand or more photographs of every event that has happened here at the 369th.”
Unlike other Black cultural institutions, the 369th Historical Society takes in all the Black military contributions to the U.S. “We have parts of the 54th Massachusetts and the Women’s Army Corps. We have the Tuskegee Airmen and different units that were all-Black that came here, even some of the Senegalese soldiers who fought alongside the French army,” says James. “My major thing is to get the history out there and to let everybody know that no one group of people made this country great; that everybody had to contribute in some way; and the 369th did their part the same as others. And sometimes we did a little more than others.”