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The Brooklyn Hellfighters

Nov 11, 2014 11:00 AM | 1 comment

The day was November 11th, 1919. At exactly 11:00am, on the one year anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting between the Allies and Germany, all school children in Brooklyn were asked to place their pencils on their desks for a ten minute silence so that they could "realize vividly the significance which that moment had for America's embattled armies." 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 11 Nov. 1919.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the events of the newly elected day of remembrance (not a national holiday until 1938 and not called Veteran's Day until 1954): parades, dinners, and memorial celebrations. President Woodrow Wilson's address to the nation was also framed prominently in the paper.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 11 Nov. 1919.

"To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations." 

The United States did fight for peace and justice in the global arena and all should be commemorated for their service and sacrifice during that time. However, a fair number of the soldiers fighting for those values -- values of democracy and equality that came to represent America during the global upheaval -- did not find those values waiting for them back home.

The 369th Infantry was first known as the 15th New York Colored Infantry. Today they are more commonly known by the name they were given by their German foes: the Harlem Hellfighters. The men of the 369th were fearless in battle, highly decorated, and bursting with patriotism. The kicker, however, is that the soldiers fought for America but not necessarily with America. Due, in part, to the aggressive segregation of the US military, the Hellfighters fought with the French troops. Many of the enlisted black servicemen were not sent to combat and suffered incredible discrimination within the ranks.  

For Brooklyn, a hero is a hero. The parade that marched through the streets of Brooklyn on that first Armistice Day contained "approximately 2,000 of the Negro warriors from Brooklyn who wore Uncle Sam's uniform in the trenches in France." At the culmination of the parade they were honored "when 10,000 of their relatives and friend's celebrated a big armistice day celebration... to commemorate their splendid fighting achievements." Thousands of people turned out to pay tribute to the soldiers (a parade in Harlem in February of that same year reportedly drew five million onlookers, said the New York Tribune) and "colored children, hundreds of them, from all over the borough who, hearing their heroes were going to march, hurried to the starting point." 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 12 Nov. 1919.

The men marched past veterans from both the Civil and Spanish-American Wars and, upon arrival at the 13th Regiment Armory, sat for a grand meal. Imagine the 13th Regiment Armory decorated to the nines with flags, wreaths, and garlands and packed with 10,000 people in their Sunday best. 

"13th Reg. Armory Interior." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 1913. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection.

Mary Church Terrell, civil rights activist and suffragette, was in attendance and called for the heroic actions of the Hellfighters to propel the nation further toward racial equality. Congressmen James J. Delaney, referring to all of the black troops serving during World War I, said that " every citizen in the country, regardless of color, has every reason to be proud of the record these 400,000 brave colored defenders of liberty made for themselves." 

Setting aside the antiquated language, the citizens of Brooklyn welcomed these soldiers home and graciously thanked them for their service. On Veteran's Day we remember all those who fought and still fight for the freedoms that we hold dear, regardless of their race, creed, gender, or orientation. Staff at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library can't help but be reminded as to the sacrifice of America's soldiers, as every time we leave our office we see the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Grand Army Plaza. The arch is always a sight to see, but on Veteran's Day it seems to be all that much grander. 

Geller, Jules. Marchers on Armistice Day. 1952. Print. Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection. 

For more excellent images of Brooklyn and its vets, check out our Tumblr!


11/24/2014 3:21:58 PM #

The statement "For Brooklyn, a hero is a hero. " offers a great perspective on the people who call Brooklyn home. So much history, such diversity, and such pride. Recently I had the opportunity to walk many of its neighborhoods, and can only imagine the celebration that must have taken place in 1919. Sadly, the 'war to end all wars' didn't didn't keep us out of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, or the Gulf. The memory of those who served, however, is still a fresh and ever present reminder. Thanks for telling the story!