The Harlem Hell Fighters in the National Guard Memorial Museum
Over the last several months, the National Guard Memorial Museum has undergone a lot of changes. The addition of the 9/11 Era Gallery and the upcoming renovation of the Vietnam Era Gallery have been well documented in National Guard. But there have been other additions to the museum that are smaller in scale but no less important to the history of the National Guard.
One of those is a case dedicated to the African American Guardsmen who served in the 93rd Infantry Division (Provisional) during World War I.
In 1917 the military was segrated. Black and white soldiers were not permitted to serve in units together. The 93rd was a division comprised of four all-black infantry regiments, three of which—the 369th (New York), the 370th (Illinois) and the 372nd (District of Columbia, Ohio, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Tennessee)—were National Guard regiments.
The 369th, also known as the “Hell Fighters from Harlem,” became one of the most highly decorated American units during the war. They were among the first units to arrive in France in 1917 and also spent the most days in continuous combat of any U.S. military unit.
The archival photographs of the 369th from the National Guard Memorial Library are part of the museum display along with a uniform and equipment used by soldiers in the other Guard units from the 93rd (which were attached to French units). Soldiers were issued United States uniforms, but their equipment and arms came from the French. Exhibiting this fact, the museum’s display includes a French Adrian helmet in addition to a uniform belonging to a Washington, D.C. Guardsmen.
The men of the 93rd fought bravely and honorably during World War I, but segregation laws were still firmly in place when they returned home after the war. Americans demanding equal rights for all citizens pointed out the nation’s hypocrisy: the United States would go to war in defense of democracy, but segregation and prejudice still characterized its own institutions. The United States military would not become legally integrated until 1948, and all segregated military units were fully disbanded by 1954—37 years after the 93rd Division had been activated for service during World War I.
Posthumous recognition has been given to a number of soldiers who fought in these segregated units. When the National Guard Bureau authorized its Heritage Painting series, H. Charles McBarron’s “’Hell Fighters’ from Harlem” was one of the first works adopted. Even though the soldiers’ service in World War I did not directly result in the integration of the armed forces, it nevertheless signified that equality was an essential part of democracy and that the triumphs of the 93rd were an indelible part of American history.