New York State Funeral Directors Association

If there’s any story that can’t be told on a headstone, it’s the tale of members of the 369th Infantry Regiment from New York – the first group of American soldiers shipped off to France for World War I.

Photographs and memorabilia on exhibit in Albany highlight one of the greatest stories of America’s participation in World War I – that of the Harlem Hellfighters, a regiment of all African Americans.

It’s a display that can leave the viewer with a variety of feelings. For me, it’s a combination of pride and shame.

It underlines the sad fact that the only members of this brave group to escape American discrimination were those who lost their lives on foreign soil.

An exhibit in Albany, NY honors the Harlem Hellfighters. Click photo to visit exhibit websiteMy pride at viewing the exhibit comes from knowing that Americans fought so bravely during the war that their enemies nicknamed them “hellfighters.”

My shame comes from realizing so many of these men were killed overseas, hundreds of miles from the country that didn’t welcome them in the first place.

And those who did make it home waited more than 40 years for their country’s law to officially recognize them as citizens like everyone else.

Members of the 369th Infantry Regiment – formerly the 15th Infantry of the New York National Guard – were among nearly 380,000 African Americans in WWI.

The 369th became one of the most highly-decorated, and most feared by the enemy, during a tour of duty that included 191 days of combat.

The regiment that started out as 2,002 strong lost 851 men during battles between Sept. 26 and Sept. 39, 1918 alone.

Of those, 169 never made it back to America after the war. They are buried at five different cemeteries in France.

Those who couldn’t be found are memorialized on a Tablet of the Missing, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.


Among the 369th’s ranks were two men who, up to now, have received the greatest attention, and it’s well well-deserved.James Reese Europe leads the 369th Regiment Military Band Outside a Paris Hospital, 1918. Image from the Library of Congress

One of them, James Reese Europe, is a pioneer of Jazz music who, despite his talents and already-growing popularity in New York’s underground music scene – volunteered for war.

He attended officer training school and went to France as a 1st Lieutenant. He was hospitalized after suffering a gas attack at the hands of the Germans – and led a military band throughout Europe, dazzling those who’d never heard his music.

He survived the war and returned to America to resume his promising music career only to be killed by a disgruntled member of his band.

For Reese, New York City held the first ever public funeral for an African American.

The other member of the 369th who received great attention is Henry Johnson who was born in North Carolina and grew up in Albany, NY.

Johnson and fellow soldier Needham Roberts were on guard duty in an area between the trenches of both sides when they were attacked by a raiding party of at least 24 Germans in May, 1917.

Johnson saved the life of his fellow soldier. Once out of ammo, Johnson continued to fight using only a few grenades and a knife – saving Roberts from capture.

Johnson survived his combat duty and returned to America only to find a life of poverty.

Though he was awarded one of France’s highest military honors – he came home to no American medals recognizing his heroism and bravery.

There was a welcome home parade for the 269th – but it wasn’t the same victory parade held for the white troops returning from the war, for whom a large-scale victory parade was held.

Johnson didn’t get military disability pay.

His injuries from the war – shrapnel from numerous grenades – took their toll on his ability to work.

His family left him and he was initially believed to have been buried in Albany’s pauper’s cemetery.

Johnson – in the year 2015 – was finally awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, 86 years after his death.

It was later learned that Johnson – like fellow 369th member James Reese Europe – was buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.


Henry Johnson wears the medal he earned from France during WWIThe French military lauded praise on and awarded medals to many of the 369th’s membership – praise these Americans never saw at home.

They faced discrimination during their training even before they went off to war.

Communities were protesting the idea that all-black military units would be in their neighborhoods.

When they were to be sent to Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina in 1917, it was made known that they were not welcome.

The mayor of that town, J.F. Floyd, was quoted in the New York Times stating he was “sorry to learn” that the regiment was being sent there.

“…for with their northern ideas about race equality, they will probably expected [sic] to be treated like white men,” said the mayor, who continued by saying they would only be treated “exactly as we treat our resident negroes.”

Before they left New York, they were not allowed to march in the farewell parade that was held in December, 1917 because they were African Americans.

One of the steam ships to carry these men to war had to stop because of a fire, and another effort to depart included a collision with another ship.

This group of brave men arrived in France on December 27th, 1917. That means they spent Christmas on the Atlantic Ocean, aboard a steam ship, on their way to trench warfare.

Less recognized – but no less important – are hundreds of members of the 369th who didn’t make it back home.

People like Dorrance Brooks, who died September 28, 1918 and is buried at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France – along with more than 14,000 other American soldiers who lost their lives during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

Unlike at home, none of the members of the 369th who were killed during World War I are segregated. Burial sites maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission are not segregated

They are buried with honor – in one of the many cemeteries maintained in France.

May they all rest in peace.


EdsPhotoEdward Munger Jr.
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association

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