The story of the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black regiment who fought against the Germans in World War I and against racism at home.
Even though racism was still widespread in American politics in 1916, there was a dire need for soldiers at the front. Despite protests from Southern politicians who feared that allowing blacks to serve would subvert Jim Crow laws, the 369th Infantry Regiment was formed, led by white officers William Hayward, Hamilton Fish and Arthur Little. Training had not yet begun when violence erupted, as white supremacists sought every opportunity to form lynch mobs. Upon arriving in Europe, the 369th fought with the French Army under Gen. Henri Gouraud, who welcomed them with open arms. The 369th proved their mettle in battle, with men like Henry Johnson becoming war heroes, earning the regiment their Hellfighters name. Nelson (Left for Dead: A Young Man’s Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis, 2002, etc.) seamlessly interweaves the military narrative with vivid firsthand accounts. The Hellfighters were a true brotherhood whose influence extended beyond the trenches. Jim Europe, a noted musician, stunned the French with jazz interpretations of popular French songs, instigating a French obsession with jazz in the postwar era. Noble Sissle became a hit songwriter and fought for the recognition of black artists. Little, Haywood and Fish all became active proponents of civil rights. The Hellfighters fought a war on two fronts and displayed incredible fortitude in the face of prejudice, racial violence and the ever-present gas and machine-gun fire. Nelson offers a nuanced, in-depth portrait of this group of ordinary men who fought with inspiring courage and dignity.
A valuable addition to World War I and civil-rights scholarship on a subject too frequently overlooked.