In a chastening reminder of racism’s toll and reach, a former New York Times reporter vividly documents the long, hard fight of African-Americans to be accepted as equals in the armed services.
Focusing on the story of New York’s 369th Colored Infantry Regiment—“The Hellfighters of Harlem”—Harris describes the regiment’s daunting struggle to fight alongside their fellow citizens. As he describes their experience, he evokes Harlem of the WWI era, recalling musicians like James Reese Europe, who served in France as a bandleader while also fighting in battle. Though the men of Harlem were eager to enlist in 1917, they were dogged by endemic racism, which led the War Office to consider African-Americans unsuitable officer material and General Pershing to deny them the right to fight alongside white Americans. Instead, they were attached to a French regiment, where they served with distinction: more than 170 men were awarded the Croix de Guerre and one soldier the Medal of Honor. Though demobilized in 1919, the regiment today is part of the Army National Guard and continues to serve—most recently at the World Trade Center. Harris includes as well a brief history of African-American service in homeland wars: George Washington denied enlistment to them, while the British promised liberty to slaves who joined them. After the Civil War, black regiments west of the Mississippi guarded the frontier; known as the Buffalo Soldiers, they, rather than the heroic whites of Western movies, were the cavalry that saved townspeople from Apaches. Harris details the changes in the military since President Truman officially ended discrimination in 1948: Today, over 10 percent of officers are African-American, and almost 21 percent of the women in the officer corps are black.
Somber, instructive story of unsung patriots’ war against prejudice. (b&w photos, maps, not seen)