Today, President Joseph Biden signed Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, commonly known as the Harlem Hellfighters, a Black infantry regiment of the New York National Guard that fought in WWI. The bill passed the Senate in August and the House companion bill, led by Congressmen Tom Suozzi and Adriano Espaillat, passed in June. During World War I, the Harlem Hellfighters spent more time in continuous combat than any other American unit of its size – 191 days in the front-line trenches – and suffered more casualties than any other U.S. regiment during the war. The bipartisan bill had 72cosponsors in the Senate.
“The Harlem Hellfighters served our nation with distinction, spending 191 days in the front-line trenches, all while displaying the American values of courage, dedication and sacrifice,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The long overdue Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act pays homage to these brave Black men who risked their lives overseas to defend our freedoms, only to come home to segregation and racism. I want to applaud President Biden for signing this bill into law, and thank my House colleagues Representatives Suozzi and Espaillat for their outstanding partnership on this legislation.”
“It is never too late to do the right thing. When I first met with the Willett family and listened to their stories, I knew we had to get this done and today, with the President’s signature, the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act is now law. Awarding the Harlem Hellfighters the Congressional Gold Medal ensures that generations of Americans will now fully comprehend the selfless service, sacrifices, and heroism displayed by these men in spite of the pervasive racism and segregation of the times. I am grateful to the many people who helped see this long-overdue recognition come to fruition, including Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, and Congressman Espaillat,” said Congressman Suozzi.
“Today, more than 100 years after their heroic and selfless service to our nation, the Harlem Hellfighters will receive their long overdue and well-deserved Congressional Gold Medal and rightful place in American history,” said Congressman Adriano Espaillat (NY-13).“These patriots gave their all to America’s enduring struggle to secure global freedom while simultaneously facing racism from the very nation they swore an oath to protect. It is never too late to do the right thing, and I am proud to work alongside Congressman Suozzi, Senators Schumer and Gillibrand to make today possible and honor these brave patriots with one of our nation’s highest military honors.”
The Harlem Hellfighters were a Black infantry regiment in WWI who spent 191 days in combat, more than any other similarly sized American regiment. In 1918, the U.S. Army assigned the Hellfighters to the French army because many white American soldiers refused to go into combat alongside Black Americans. The Hellfighters earned the nicknames “Hommes de Bronze” (Men of Bronze) from the French and “Hollenkampfer” (Hellfighters) from the Germans due to their doggedness and strength. The Hellfighters earned 11 French citations and a unit Croix de Guerre, and 170 soldiers were individually awarded the French Croix de Guerre. However, despite their courage and devotion, the Hellfighters faced prejudice and racism upon their return to the United States.
Among the most celebrated of the Harlem Hellfighters was Private Henry Johnson, a former Albany, NY rail station porter who earned the nickname “Black Death” for his actions in combat in France. In May 1918, Private Johnson and another soldier, Private Needham Roberts, bravely fought off a German patrol consisting of as many as 36 men on their own. They fought until a German grenade incapacitated Roberts, at which pointed Johnson continued to fight with the butt of his weapon and a bolo knife. Johnson killed at least four German soldiers, wounded as many as 30, and sustained at least 21 injuries himself.
The United States Congress gives the Congressional Gold Medal to those who have “performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field, long after the achievement.” The Congressional Gold Medal is Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. The Congressional Gold Medal will be designed and struck by the United States Mint and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and at events associated with the Harlem Hellfighters. There have been only two other Congressional Gold Medals awarded to distinguished African American military groups: the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 and the Montford Point Marines in 2011, both from World War II.