Spotlight: The Harlem Hellfighters Return Home

Please Note: Primary source documents used in this post may contain harmful language. See NARA’s Statement on Potentially Harmful Language.

Last week, the 369th Infantry Regiment, more famously known as the Harlem Hellfighters, was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. The honor comes more than a century after their service in Europe during WWI. The regiment is well known for its participation in several key battles including Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry and Meuse-Argonne. By the end of the 369th Infantry’s WWI campaign, they suffered 1,500 casualties, the highest of any U.S. regiment, and spent 191 days in front-line trenches, longer than any unit of their size. Upon the regiment’s arrival in the United States, they were celebrated with a parade in New York City. 

Still image of the 369th Regimental Band taken from film 111-H-1181.

NARA’s motion pictures holdings include footage of the New York City parade held in honor of the Harlem Hellfighters. Item 111-H-1181 from Record Group 111 Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985 shows the 369th arriving in the United States aboard the transport ship Stockholm, sailing up the Hudson River on a ferry, and marching in the parade. 

Clip taken from 111-H-1181 showing the 369th Infantry Regiment arriving in New York City.

The parade in February of 1919 covered more than seven miles and attracted large crowds. Footage of the parade in 111-H-1181 captures the large crowds lining 5th Avenue, as well as the soldiers marching through Harlem, and wounded members of the regiment riding in cars and trucks along the parade route. The Harlem Hellfighters were the first New York combat unit to return home and the welcome captured in this footage was entirely different than their farewell experience. New York threw a parade in 1917 for the New York National Guard before they left for Europe but the 369th Regiment had been denied permission to participate because a majority of the members were Black.

Clip from 111-H-1181 of the 369th Infantry Regiment arriving in New York City.
Clip from 111-H-1181 of the New York City Parade for the 369th Infantry Regiment.
Clip from 111-H-1181 of the New York City Parade for the 369th Infantry Regiment.

Another scene captured by this footage is of the regimental band under the direction of Jim Europe playing as they make their way up the Hudson River. Europe and the 369th band were relied on during battle and to boost morale. By the end of their time in the war, they were one of the most famous military bands and are credited with introducing jazz to European audiences

Clip taken from 111-H-1181 showing the 369th Regimental Band.

The members of the 369th Infantry Regiment, despite facing racism at home and in the military, served their country honorably. Their dedicated service played a key role in the success of the United States’ participation in World War I. Over 100 soldiers were presented with American and French decorations. Honors and awards given to the Harlem Hellfighters include, one Medal of Honor, numerous Distinguished Service Crosses, 170 individual Croix de Guerre, a regimental Croix de Guerre, and several unit citations. And now, the Congressional Gold Medal. 

More identifying information regarding this footage can be found in the digitized shot list for 111-H-1181 in NARA’s online catalog. The images below are the shot lists for the footage shared above. 

Other NARA blog posts that discuss Black Americans who have served in the United States Military can be found here, here, and here. To learn more about the 369th Infantry Regiment, please visit NARA Educator Resources. More information on Record Group 111 and recent digitization efforts can be found here.

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