WWI's Harlem Hellfighters Who Cut Down Germans and Gave France Jazz
What the 369th had that set it apart was strong leadership by black officers as well as white— and the best damned band in the American Army.
Photo Illustration by the Daily Beast/U.S. National Archives
PARIS—A classic study published in the 1970s, a tragic history of great hopes, great courage, brutal segregation, daily humiliations, and enduring, embittering disappointments bears the damning title, The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I. It's about 370,000 men “who labored, fought, and died to make the world safe for a democracy that refused them equal citizenship at home.” Indeed, they were fighting for a nation where lynchings were an all too common way of death.
But there was one National Guard regiment, first known as the 15th New York, then the 369th Infantry attached to the French Army, and ultimately, “The Harlem Hellfighters,” that made its own very special history, and by the end of the Great War was anything but “unknown.”
The men of the 369th had something nobody else could come close to matching, a unit so talented that it was able at times to cut through some of the bigotry that surrounded them, and eventually win the regiment’s soldiers a place in the front lines—win them the chance to fight, to test their mettle against the massed forces of the Germans. And they did so with such distinction that the regiment and many of the soldiers in it were awarded one of the French military’s high honors, the Croix de Guerre.
What the 369th had that set it apart was strong leadership by black officers as well as white— and the best damned band in the American Army. And what it brought to France, in addition to the blood and bravery of its soldiers in the fight against the Germans, was something revolutionary. It brought jazz—a kind of music, just then growing out of ragtime, that was not like anything the French, or most Americans, had ever heard before, but that caused a sensation wherever it was played.
As one reporter wrote, trying to describe the way the band used mutes on its trumpets and trombones, “the sound might be called liquefied harmony. It runs and ripples, then has a sort of choking sensation; next it takes on the musical color of Niagara Falls at a distance, and subsides to a trout brook nearby. The brassiness of the horn is changed, and there is sort of throbbing, nasal effect, half moan, half hallelujah.”
But to understand just how phenomenal and how exceptional the Harlem Hellfighters really were, you have to step back some years before they arrived in the trenches amid the thunder of artillery and the clouds of poison gas, and look at the path of glory taken by a young orchestra conductor named, of all things, James Reese Europe.
National Archives and Records Administration Records of the War Department
Lt. James Reese Europe from Good night Angeline sheet music, 1919
He was born in Mobile, Alabama. His father was a former slave who worked after the Civil War for the Internal Revenue Service and also became a prominent church pastor. His mother was born into a black family that had been free for generations. When James was nine they moved with his brother and two sisters to Washington D.C., where church music played a big part in their lives, and they were sometimes taught by members of the U.S. Marine Band lead by their famous neighbor, John Philip Sousa.
As a young man Jim Europe proved himself as a musician on many instruments, including his favorite, the violin. But his greatest talent was as a conductor, and, like many another conductor, as an organizer and promoter.
In 1912, his was the first all-black orchestra ever to play in Carnegie Hall, a benefit for one of his favorite projects, the Music School Settlement for Colored People, and the house was packed. Some New Yorkers, at least, were coming to realize, as an editorialist for the Evening Journal wrote, “the Negroes have given us the only music of our own that is American—national, original, and real.”
Jim Europe was the toast of the town, he and the musicians he worked with playing regularly at events hosted by the cream of New York society just as Americans, both rich and poor, were aching to break free of strait-laced Victorian norms.
“Social dancing”—the original incarnation of the dancing in “Dancing with the Stars”—was taking off. Its most famous avatars were Vernon and Irene Castle (later played, appropriately, by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in a 1939 biopic). When Vernon heard Jim Europe’s band play, he would have nobody else. So vehement was he, that when the Castles opened on Broadway, and the all-white musicians’ union refused to allow the black musicians into the theater, the Castles refused to dance. In the end, the Castles and Jim Europe won, and soon the union had to give up its racist restrictions.
By then, in 1914, the Great War had come to Europe, but the United States tried to remain neutral. Not until hundreds of thousands of French, British, Canadian, and German troops had died did the Wilson administration finally decide definitively to take part in the carnage, declaring war on Germany in April 1917.
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Mobilization had been quick and massive, beginning the year before, and every able bodied man was needed. But the unapologetically racist administration of the U.S. army was not sure what to do with able-bodied black men. There were already some 10,000 in the regular army’s segregated black units that had grown out of the massive recruitment of former slaves fighting to preserve the Union, and free the rest of the slaves, in the Civil War.
Black soldiers had fought with distinction in Cuba and Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War at the end of the 19th century, and some had been commanded at one point by Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing, who headed up the American Expeditionary Force getting ready to sail for the battlefields of Europe. But Pershing and the Army high command wanted them nowhere near the front. The black professionals were assigned to the Mexican border and Hawaii.
National Archives and Records Administration Records of the War Department
Lt. James Reese Europe, famous jazz band leader, back with the 369th Regiment
Black soldiers, it was said, didn’t “know their place.” These troops were tough, proud, and combative, and when they ran up against the Jim Crow laws of the South, there were a couple of times when all hell broke loose. In Brownsville, Texas, in 1906, several soldiers from three different companies marched into town and shot up some of the establishments, including a bar, where they felt they’d been offended. President Theodore Roosevelt, who had seen the worth of black troops when he fought in Cuba, nonetheless dismissed all three companies entirely, and “without honor.”
Black leaders like W.E.B. Dubois continued to believe that service to the nation in wartime could be a foundation on which to build a more equitable American society. But, as the authors of The Unknown Soldiers, Arthur E. Barbeau and Florettte Henri, wrote, “At the very time when patriotism and sacrifice were being demanded of black Americans, a nationwide surge of violence was directed against them. In 1916 there had been 54 lynchings. In 1917 there were 70, and as in earlier years the offenses were often trivial or not at all outside the law.”
Gruesome mob violence hit East Saint Louis in the summer of 1917, after labor unrest and a rumor that black men had killed a white man. White drive-by shootings lead to escalating bloodshed. Some police were killed and bands of whites, women as well as men, began to rampage through the city:
“For days the newspapers were filled with tales of the horrors perpetrated by the mobs,” wrote Barbeau and Henri. "Women were among the pursuers and the pursued. One black woman had her throat slashed by a white woman; gangs of white girls beat every black woman they could find. One mob immolated a cripple. A two-year-old black boy was shot and his body thrown into a burning building.”
“White blood becoming once aroused grows savage and very, very cruel,” pontificated Sen. Ben Tillman of South Carolina.
A month after the East St. Louis riots, a battalion of black regular soldiers, freshly assigned to Houston, Texas, encountered Jim Crow laws that were tightened up just for them. But they refused to sit in the Negro sections of theaters and street cars. They refused to drink from the water barrels supplied for Negro workmen. They tore down Jim Crow signs. “In short, they insisted on their dignity as members of the United States Army,” as Barbeau and Henri put it.
When one of the soldiers tried to stop a white police officer from beating up a black woman, and the military police corporal sent to find out what was happening was himself pistol whipped, all hell broke loose, with black soldiers fighting a gun battle against white police and armed civilians. Two black soldiers and 17 white men, including five police officers were killed. Before the end of the year, courts martial sentenced 41 of the black soldiers to life in prison, and 13 were hanged.
If black troops were going to be sent to Europe, the Army decided, they would be less trained—and maybe less proud and less troublesome—volunteers in the National Guard.
In New York, starting in 1916, a few pillars of Manhattan society, like public service commissioner William Hayward and state assemblyman Hamilton Fish, had taken it on themselves to organize the 15th Infantry Regiment (Colored). And among the recruits they attracted was the famous bandleader James Reese Europe.
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Recently returned to New York City from an orchestra engagement in Saratoga Springs, Jim Europe had enlisted as a private in September 1916 and was assigned to a machine gun company.
“I have been in New York for 16 years,” he explained to one of his incredulous friends. “And there has never been such an organization of Negro men that will bring together all classes of men for a common good. And our race will never amount to anything, politically or economically, in New York or anywhere else unless there are strong organizations of men who stand for something in the community.”
Hayward, now a colonel, thought a band with Jim Europe as its leader would be a great recruiting asset. But Europe, commissioned a lieutenant, wasn’t especially interested in military bands, according to Reid Badger, his biographer. “He liked the sound of strings and thought them more appropriate vehicles for communicating the soul of African-American music. … He was also proud of his new lieutenancy and was reluctant to be assigned to band duty.”
Hayward kept pushing, and Europe pushed back until both started bending the rules: the standard regimental band was 28 musicians. Soon Jim Europe was conducting 44, including several he went to Puerto Rico to recruit. The costs were underwritten by another wealthy New Yorker who wrote a check for the then-remarkable sum of $10,000.
But the regiment didn’t have enough guns to train with, and had to use the second floor of a theater on 132nd Street as its “armory.” Much of the time, instead of drilling, the soldiers of the 15th were assigned to guard duty around the state while white regiments paraded down Fifth Avenue and shipped out for the war. The 69th New York joined what was called “the Rainbow Division” in France, and Hayward hoped the 15th could become part of it as well. He was told bluntly that “black is not one of the colors of the rainbow.”
Finally, in August 1917, the 15th was allowed to join another, white New York regiment training in Spartanburg, South Carolina. This was just weeks after the East Saint Louis riots and the Houston “mutiny” by black troops.
Spartanburg’s Mayor J. F. Floyd made it perfectly clear how unwelcome this black regiment was going to be. “With their Northern ideas about race equality, they will probably expect to be treated like white men. I can say right here that they will not be treated as anything except Negroes. We shall treat them exactly as we treat our resident Negroes. This thing is like waving a red flag in the face of a bull, something that can’t be done without trouble.”
Tensions mounted very quickly.
One night Jim Europe, his good friend and lead singer Noble Sissle, and the band had played at a local church and were waiting for transport back to their camp when Sissle went to buy New York newspapers at a local “white” hotel. As he was walking back out the door he was hit from behind. “Say, nigger, don’t you know enough to take your hat off.” It was the hotel owner cursing him and kicking him until he was out the door.
The black soldiers down the street hadn’t seen anything and Sissle wasn’t going to say anything. But dozens of white soldiers from New York had been in the hotel and seen what happened, and vowed to tear the place down. One ran out to the black soldiers and told them what had happened.
Lt. Europe took command, ordering the white soldiers as well as the blacks to stand at attention, and those inside the hotel to file out individually or in pairs. The military police arrived and the men reluctantly agreed to return to base.
The decision was made to get the 15th out of South Carolina as quickly as possible by sending them to France. They had trained at Spartanburg exactly 12 days. And now they were on their way to war.
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On New Year’s Day 1918, Jim Europe’s regiment was the first African-American combat unit to set foot on French soil, and as they landed, the band struck up a tune, the national anthem of France, the “Marsellaise.” But at first the French soldiers there to receive them and the small crowd there to greet them didn’t recognize it. They were used to something fit for a church organ, this sounded more like—well, they weren’t sure what. But many thought they liked it. Jim Europe’s musical invasion of France had begun.
The U.S. Army still didn’t want black soldiers serving alongside its white soldiers, so that same month the 15th was detailed to the French Army to become the 369th Infantry of the 93rd Division (Provisional). But in those first weeks it was still assigned to do the work of stevedores, not soldiers.
Col. Hayward continued to lobby with the high command to give the regiment combat assignments, and used Jim Europe’s band to win favor by having it travel across France, playing in several cities, before offering concerts to American soldiers on leave at Aix-les-bains.
“The French know no color line,” wrote one of the regiment’s officers, and in the provincial city of Nantes, “The spirit of emotional enthusiasm had got into the blood of our men; and they played as I had never heard them play before.”
A reporter on the scene that night wrote that when Europe’s band launched into W. C. Handy’s jazzed up ragtime number “The Memphis Blues” the audience “could stand it no longer, the ‘jazz germ’ hit them and it seemed to find the vital spot loosening all muscles.”
Noble Sissle wrote later that he said to himself that night: “‘Col. Hayward has brought his band over here and started ragtimitis in France; ain’t this an awful thing to visit upon a nation with so many burdens?’ But when the band had finished and people were roaring with laughter, their faces wreathed in smiles, I was forced to say that this is just what France needs at this critical time.”
Finally, in March 1918, still flying their New York colors, Jim Europe’s unit was sent to join the French 4th Army at the front near Verdun where 650,000 French and German soldiers had died two years before.
“Our men who played baseball could throw grenades farther than the French, which amused the French a lot,” one of the officers with the 369th recalled. They also impressed their French instructors, assigned to just about every platoon, with their talent turning boxing skills to good use in bayonet drills.
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In mid-April 1918 the 369th was ordered forward to the town of Maffrécourt, opposite the German lines, and among the first to reach the trenches was Lt. Jim Europe. After weeks spent getting used to the deadly slow pace of the stalemated war (“toying with death,” as Sissle put it), Europe also became the first black officer in the American army to lead troops into combat, crawling out with a French raiding party through the barbed wire. “I heard the boom of several of our light artillery guns, and like a thousand pheasants, several shells came whizzing over our heads and burst about 40 yards in front of me. … All up and down the front they were pouring—all calibers—and were sweeping the enemy’s trench.”
In late June, Lt. Europe and his machine gun company found their position under heavy bombardment, including a barrage of shells loaded with poison gas. Europe, overcome, had to be evacuated. Sissle, who went to visit him in the gas ward, wrote that he would never forget “the terrible scene that greeted our eyes” as the victims of mustard gas and other poisons suffered from horrific lesions and grim internal complications. But, apart from a painful, hacking cough, Lt. Europe seemed to be on the mend, and had just finished writing what would become one of his most famous songs, “On Patrol in No-Man’s Land.”
The French had been expecting a major German offensive, and in mid-July, soon after Lt. Europe returned to his unit, the Battle of Champagne-Marne began along a 50-mile stretch of the lines running from Verdun to Reims.
“The first thing I knew,” Col. Hayward recalled, “all there was between the German Army and Paris on a stretch of front a little more than four miles long was my regiment of Negroes.” And the line held. Then the 369th was called on to support a French division launching a counterattack, driving the Germans back and holding the ground they had taken. In September, the regiment joined with over 1 million American soldiers, black and white, to drive the German Army out of the Meuse-Argonne region. In that long, brutal battle, the Americans suffered 120,000 casualties.
After taking and holding the town Séchault through a relentless 48 hours of machine-gun and artillery fire, and losing 30 percent of their number, the 369th finally was relieved by a fresh battalion. Over 150 had been killed or later died from their wounds; 636 had to be hospitalized. The entire regiment received the Croix de Guerre, and 170 officers and men received individual citations.”
Six weeks later, the Great War was over.
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“Jim and I have Paris by the balls,” Sissle wrote to a buddy in late 1918. Even before the armistice, Jim Europe’s band from the regiment now known as the Harlem Hellfighters had been giving concerts in Paris, at the prestigious Theatre des Champs-Élysées at one point, and in the Tuileries Gardens along with great military bands from Britain, France, and Italy. “We played to 50,000 people, at least,” he wrote, “and had we wished it, we might be playing yet.”
Afterward, the leader of the French Garde Républicain and some of his musicians asked to inspect the instruments being played by Europe’s men. They couldn’t believe the sounds they got out of them.
“This band operated with B-flat trombones or machine guns, just as it happened, all the way from Brest to Armistice,” wrote one historian. “It cleaned up everywhere. It filled France full of Jazz.”
And yet, and yet, when it came time for the heroes to go home, the U.S. Army decided once again to put them in their place.
“The army command was apparently worried that the black American troops had been infected with an egalitarian virus (‘foreign radicalism’ was the standard euphemism),” Reid Badger writes in this biography of Jim Europe, A Life in Ragtime. So the military police at Brest, where the 369th was sent to ship out “were instructed to treat the black soldiers harshly, to help them remember their inferior status back in America.” One of the soldiers wrote in his diary, “It seems as if we at last had struck something worse than the Germans.”
When they finally got home to New York, the mood was different. A great parade was arranged for them from the Victory Arch on 25th Street seven miles up Fifth Avenue to Harlem. Even those marching just behind Europe’s band could barely hear it, as one wrote, “so great were the roars of cheers, the applause, and the shouts of personal greetings.”
National Archives and Records Administration Records of the War Department
New York's famous 369th regiment arrives home from France
But James Reese Europe knew that euphoria would not last long. Within a month he began a tour with his “Famous 369th U.S. Infantry Band,” featuring “Superstar Lieut. Noble Sissle” as tenor soloist.
For weeks the band toured the East and Midwest, playing everything from “plantation” melodies and French marches to syncopated arrangements of Grieg’s “Pyr Gint Suite” and Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor,” known as “The Russian Rag.”
Jim Europe was 39 years old and on the verge of what he hoped would be a huge breakthrough for music, and for black Americans as well.
And then, one night after a performance in Boston, one of the drummers in the orchestra claimed that Europe was being harder on him than on other musicians. In a rage, he attacked Europe with a little pocket knife. Sissle and others in the room barely saw it as the man was dragged away. But the blade had puncture Europe’s neck, and he was bleeding more badly than anyone imagined. He was rushed to the hospital, but by the morning, he was dead. Having survived so much, he died for so little, and many who knew him or who learned about him afterward imagined that Jim Europe might have been one of the great leaders of the 20th century, not only in music, but in the fight for civil rights: a Count Basie, a Martin Luther King. But for most of a century, he has been all but forgotten.
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Almost any scholar who studies the First World War will tell you Americans don’t pay much attention to it. Many in the United States are obsessed, still, with the American Civil War, and the vast popular culture that grew out of World War II surrounds us to this day. But not WWI. In a sense, almost all the soldiers of that war the Europeans call the 1914-18 War, or the Great War, are unknown soldiers in America.
But in this centennial year of America’s involvement in that conflict, here in France there are many efforts underway to help people remember, and not the least of them are revivals of Jim Europe’s legacy. Musician and author Daniel Vernhettes, for instance, has organized ambitious conferences and concerts in the coming months that also underscore the contributions of other bands. An orchestra modeled on Europe’s has been pulled together in the United States and is hoping it can find the funding to come here to tour. And, more modestly, when the U.S. embassy holds its July 4 celebration this year, I am told, there will be a band playing some of the same jazz that Jim Europe brought to France, and that France, at least, has never forgotten.