Places that Matter

369th Regiment Armory

Ned Kaufman
Ned Kaufman
Home of the World War I Harlem Hellfighters
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Written by Tracy McFarlan, with contributions from Elena Martínez, for Place Matters and the Fall 2017 Local and Community History course of NYU's Archives and Public History Program

The 369th Regiment Armory stands on Fifth Avenue between 142nd and 143rd Streets in Upper Manhattan, just off Harlem River Drive. The hulking red brick colossus was originally built to house the 369th Infantry Regiment following World War I, and is still used to this day by the 369th Sustainment Brigade of the New York Army National Guard. The building combines the signature medieval fortress-like style of earlier New York City armories with contemporary Art Deco elements. It was designed and constructed in two parts, the drill shed from 1920 to 1924, and the administrative building from 1930 to 1933. Today, the building serves as a place for the 369th Sustainment Brigade to meet, train, and prepare for deployment – as well as a massive monument to the men who fought and died in World War I.

When ordered to retreat during a German assault, the New York Age reported Colonel William Hayward defiantly responded, “My men never retire. They go forward or they die!” Hayward, a white man, served as commander of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the first all-Back American military unit to see combat during World War I.  Stationed in France, the regiment served longer than any other. American unit and was said to have never lost a foot of ground or a man to capture. Known for its indomitable bravery, the regiment was given many sensationalist nicknames, the most enduring was the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

For the men of the 369th Infantry Regiment, however, World War I was just one battle in a protracted race war long fought at home. Early on, African Americans recognized the inseparable link between nationhood, citizenship, and soldiering. After all, it was the Continental Army that won independence from Great Britain and George Washington, a military hero, who served as the country’s first president. While many Americans fought in World War I to make the world safe for democracy, the men of the 369th also fought to overcome racism and claim the democratic rights that they had long been denied. The “go forward or die” spirit of the regiment was, as a result, central to their call for full and equal citizenship. 

As early as 1910, a formal campaign to organize an African American regiment began in New York State, but the National Guard repeatedly obstructed its formation, unwilling to incorporate Blacks into their ranks. It wasn’t until June 1916, under the looming threat of U.S. entry into World War I, that the Colored 15th Regiment (designated the 369th Infantry Regiment during federal service) joined the New York National Guard. In December 1917, the regiment was deployed to France. Segregated from the rest of its division, the 369th served as a labor unit, charged with building roads, digging canals, and unloading ships. The work was arduous and demeaning for the men who had trained for combat and were eager to fight.

Colonel Hayward was hopeful that the 369th might see battle because the unit had one of the greatest military bands in the U.S. Army at a time when soldiers desperately needed music for morale. Led by renowned African American musician, composer, and bandleader, Lieutenant James Reese Europe, the 369th Regiment Band is widely credited with introducing live jazz music to the Continent. On the eve of WW I, Lieutenant Europe was tasked with forming an all-Black military band. Reed instrument players able to read music and willing to enlist were scarce in New York, but Puerto Rico’s tradition of municipal bands with trained musicians of African American ancestry enticed Europe to the Island, where he recruited eighteen Afro-Puerto Ricans for the regiment. The many municipal bands that played throughout the island were made up of some of the island’s finest musicians, who could play various instruments. Subsequently, a third of the regimental band was comprised of Afro-Puerto Ricans who would not only to leave their mark during their military service, but some would settle in New York after the war, changing Latin music forever. Among the many distinguished musicians was one who would become an internationally celebrated composer, Rafael Hernández. While overseas, the band introduced European audiences--particularly in France--to live jazz music. In 1917, the band played in twenty-five French cities, performing for both French civilians and Allied soldiers who were at first astonished and then entranced by the music they heard. The experience ultimately influenced the careers of notable musicians including Hernandez, as well as jazz greats Noble Sissle, Charles “Lucky” Roberts, and Frances Eugene Mikall.

In reality, the U.S. Army never intended for the 369th to serve in a combat role, but by February 1918 the French were desperate for American troops to swell their dwindling ranks. It was thus the persistent requests from the French, not the regiment’s band, which brought the 369th to the front lines. The unit was incorporated into the 93rd Provisional Division to the French Army in March 1918 and, outfitted with French helmets and French rifles, became the only American regiment to join a foreign army.

The 369th served in four major battles with the French where they earned a reputation for indomitable bravery. Newspapers covering the war recognized the troops as heroes but kept the unit at arm’s length with racialized and otherworldly nicknames like “hellfighters,” “hell hounds,” “black devils,” and “black watch.” As a testament to their success, after the war members of the unit were rewarded for their service with one of the highest French military honors, the Croix de Guerre. At home, however, the 369th was unable to receive the most prestigious American military decoration, the Medal of Honor, because they had fought as part of foreign army. Not permitted to serve with the American military due to systemic racism, even after the war the 369th still weren’t respected as full and equal citizens despite their military success.

At the conclusion of World War I, the regiment was reorganized as part of the New York National Guard. In an effort to appeal to the constituents of Harlem who had enthusiastically followed the 369th, state and local political channels helped to finance the construction of an armory for the unit, which had formerly been headquartered at a house at 58 West 130th Street. The present-day site of the armory was acquired in 1921. A ceremonial groundbreaking was held later that year, which the New York Age reported had more than ten thousand spectators in attendance. The initial appropriation for the armory called only for the construction of a drill shed where the unit could meet, train, and practice. Completed in 1924, the drill shed was designed by the architecture firm Tachau & Vought and had a seating capacity of 6,000 to 7,000. To be fully functional, however, the armory also needed an administration building. Five years later, in 1929, the rest of the block next to the drill shed was acquired and construction took place on an administration complex from 1930 to 1933. 
 
The regiment and its armory had an immediate value to the community. The unit provided employment for hundreds of young African American men with the promise of opportunities for professional development and advancement. The armory itself also provided additional jobs, even to civilians, as janitors and secretaries. It was also a community-gathering place. In order to recruit new members, the unit sponsored neighborhood athletic teams and held open events, parties, and meetings. As the New York Age noted in 1935, the regiment was “one of the most constructive forces in Harlem.”

In the one hundred years since World War I, the function of the unit has continually changed to in response to new military tactics. One of the most significant developments for the regiment was also the integration of the American military in 1947. No longer an African American institution, by the late 1960s, the unit had become 85 percent white. As time has passed and dynamics have changed, the history of the armory and its role as a monument to the African American troops who fought and died in World War I has largely been forgotten by soldiers and civilians alike. As Major General Nathaniel James, president of the 369th Historical Society and former commander of the unit notes, “It’s a colorful history that very few people know about.”

Today, the armory is shrouded in scaffolding as part of an extensive, $52 million state-funded effort to renovate and repair the aging facility. Parts of the building are still in use by neighborhood youth athletic groups who pay to rent the space, including Harlem Children’s Zone, Harlem Junior Tennis & Education Program, and Wendy Hilliard Gymnastics. However, in 2013, General James was turned out, asked to find a new place for the artifacts of the Harlem Hellfighters that he found, organized, and had been displaying at the armory since 1959. The state has promised to consult General James about an exhibition on the history of the unit for the armory before it reopens, but they let him know that veterans associations, including the 369th Historical Society, will no longer be able to operate out of the building.
 
In our present moment, punctuated by hotly contested debates over Confederate statuary, the built environment has increasingly become recognized as a racialized space. While calls to remove offensive monuments have swelled from a rumble to a roar, the importance of preserving the history of existing sites that tell powerful stories about race and inequality hasn’t achieved the same currency. Instead it seems that, one hundred years later, the remarkable accomplishments of the 369th may once again go largely unacknowledged and forgotten.     
 
 
Sources:
 
“Ceremony of Breaking Ground for Armory of 15th Regiment.” New York Age.
November 6, 1921.
 
Chodnicki, Cheryl, and Marjorie Pearson. “369th Regiment Armory Designation
Report.” New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. May 14, 1985.
 
Dickey, Christopher. “WWI's Harlem Hellfighters Who Cut Down Germans and Gave
 
Garcia, Sandra E. “A Life Dedicated to Raising the Profile of a Black Army Unit
 
“Governor Cuomo Announces $2.2 Million Rehabilitation of the Entrance Facade at
the Harlem Armory, Home of the New York Army National Guard's ‘Harlem Hellfighters’ (Press Release)." The Official Website of New York State. April 28, 2016. https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-announces-22- million-rehabilitation-entrance-facade-harlem-armory-home-new-york
 
James, Nathaniel, President of the 396th Historical Society, in an interview with the
author, November 3, 2017.
 
Little, Arthur W. From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York’s Colored Volunteers. Covici Friede Publishers, 1936.
 
“Members of the Old 15th Tell How Colonel William Hayward Won the Name ‘Hell
Man.’ – 15 Wounded Arrive.” New York Age. February 8, 1919.
 
Sammons, Jeffrey T., and John H. Morrow, Jr. Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War:
The Undaunted 369th Regiment & the African American Quest for Equality.
University Press of Kansas, 2014.
 
Sammons, Jeffrey T. “Harlem’s Rattlers: African American Regiment of the New York
National Guard in World War I.” History Now: Journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute. Accessed November 30, 2017. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/world-war- i/essays/harlems-rattlers-world-war-i-regiment.