Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality

By Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow, Jr.

University Press of Kansas | 2014

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

jeffery t sammons

Harlem Goes to War

This comprehensive and in-depth study, with photos, extensive notes and biographical references was written over a ten-year period.  It provides the reader with an additional lens by which to view the legacy of Harlem’s Rattlers.  It is a book that readers of military history will cherish and that general readers and lovers of history will find informative. It is both a reference book and an important historical narrative that lays the ground for the civil rights movement.

At a recent forum on Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War at Medgar Evers College, Sammons began his presentation by describing how the story of the Black soldiers who served in this unit was a testimony to the character of these men:

He told the audience “that it is character, not reputation that determines your place in history and the legacy which you will leave.  If these men had been dependent on the reputation by which they were labeled, they would have never formed the unit that marked them in history. Their character speaks loudly in this important study of the “Undaunted 369th Regiment.” 

john h morrow jr

The rattler, distinguished by its rattle and considered aggressive, a deadly foe and natural predator, uses it venom to strike at internal forces within its own environment and when it perceives a threat, will strike at external forces it encounters.      This book chronicles the history of the 369th Regiment, the original 15th Regiment of Black soldiers who fought in France during World War I.

The rattler became the insignia of this unit as evidenced by its image on the Commemorative Firsts History Proclamation of the 15th New York Colored Infantry and the 369th Infantry.  This proclamation was presented to Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Commanding Officer of the 369th Infantry, on June 23rd 1939. 

One of the longest serving infantry combat units on the front line (191 days in France) theirs was known as a unit that never lost a soldier to capture or a foot of the ground it had captured.  Although this Regiment, which earned the Croix de Guerre, is more commonly known as Harlem’s Hellfighters, Sammons and Morrow, deliberately choose not to use this name which they suggest was made popular by the media. 

They inform us that this name, never embraced by the unit itself, limits the entire narrative behind Harlem’s Rattlers.  Sammons and Morrow have chosen to expand this comprehensive narrative of Harlem’s Rattlers by giving the back story leading up to the legislation that legitimatized the formation of the 369th Infantry Regiment (formerly known as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment), the post-war challenges faced by the unit after its return from France, and the current state of the 369th Unit. 

Sammons and Morrow have done an extraordinary job in conveying the complex narrative of the men who dared to resist and to demand a valued place for their participation in WWI.  When initially approached to write the story of Harlem’s Rattlers, Sammons enlisted the partnership of his colleague Morrow, a leading military historian of World War I with fluency in French and German who had great familiarity with the records of the 369th Regiment.

The resulting 500-page book of military history provides a sociological and political context in which the highly charged drama of the 369th unfolds.  The writers describe the city, state and national politics surrounding the formation of the 369th Regiment and the many obstacles faced by the men, soldiers and leaders who advocate for a Black combat infantry regiment.

The book begins and opens with a description of Henry Lincoln Johnson, the first combat hero of the 369th Regiment, who is most closely identified with the regiment. When warned to retreat by a white French lieutenant in 1918 France, Johnson responds, “I am an American and I never retreat.” Johnson’s words underscore the impact of this experience for those who chose to fight in a Black regiment of the New York National Guard; there was hope that this fight for democracy on foreign soil would result in an affirmation of respect for Black Americans.  This was a fight for civil rights and social justice, for manhood in a gendered society, for equal participation in a democracy, and for the freedom that should have been afforded all Americans.           Johnson’s declaration of himself as an American who never retreats underscores the irony faced by those in the 369th Regiment.  The paradox of going to their possible death in France while facing bigotry and prejudice in America cannot be underscored.  Sammons and Morrow note that the scholar Richard Slotkin correctly labels the Regiment’s “transfer to the French army, “a liberation rather than an exile.”   

The representation of historical events in film and literature never become visible in a vacuum. Sammons and Morrow illustrate this by providing the cultural and political context in which the story of the 369th Regiment emerged in popular culture.  Almost 25 years after the original 369th had returned from WWI, the 369th, after serving in the Pacific during WWII, returned to New York in 1943.  Like the soldiers of the original 369th Unit, they participated in an historic march up Fifth Avenue. 

Sammons and Morrow offer critical commentary on the launching of the classic film Stormy Weather at this time.  Racial tension and discrimination were intense; riots had erupted in Detroit, Harlem and Los Angeles.  And Civil Rights leaders were pressuring Hollywood to employ more African Americans in less stereotypical and restrictive roles.   Their critique of Stormy Weather focuses on the ways in which the contributions of Black soldiers were misrepresented and diminished in the film; for example, there is an implication that Bojangles Robinson, a central character in the film, was actually part of the 369th Regiment.  The truth is that Robinson never served in the regiment. Thus, viewers of the film can come away from it with inaccurate information, with the perception that Black soldiers played a minimal role in France during WWI, and with a narrow and superficial rendering of which Black soldiers were actually part of the 369th. 

One might say that the film is successful because: it has a high cast of Black talents (Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Katherine Dunham, and Bojangles Robinson among others), is highly entertaining, and has extended reach. However, because the film is loosely based on characters in the 369th Regiment, Sammons and Morrow contend that the film is a disservice to the images of Blacks in WWI.

For example, the film refers to the 369th Regiment rather than the 15th Regiment; in omitting the name of the 15th Regiment, an important historical fact is inadvertently dismissed.  Given that this popular film was a source of information on the Regiment (before this film, there had been only two dedicated treatments of the Regiment), Sammons and Morrow suggest that more could have been done to present an accurate portrayal of the Regiment.  Moreover, because the band rather than the soldiers from the 369th Unit is highlighted in the film, it is not even clear that African Americans were actually part of a combat unit.

Throughout the book, Sammons and Morrow remind us that the very act of entering the military is and has been a gendered experience, one that is specifically significant for African American men who daily faced lynching and the discriminatory laws resulting from Jim Crow, and who were often a step away from dire poverty, high mortality rates, forced labor and continual attacks on their families. 

For African American men, participation in the war also represented a symbolic affirmation of male masculinity and an act of resistance to the perpetuation of stereotypes of Black men as lazy, violent, dangerous, aggressive, angry and inferior. 

A significant portion of the book is focused on detailing the politics and the racial climate behind the long struggle from a Provisional Regiment in 1911 to 1916 when the Regiment was formerly constituted in New York City.  Republicans and whites attempted to delay the application of Black men, who were volunteers, not draftees, by establishing one unit at a time. One is surprised by some of the leaders who initially opposed the formation of the unit.  W.E.B. DuBois, who was initially ambivalent about the unit, later encourages Blacks to join. A Philip Randolph questioned whether Blacks should fight this international war when they were facing injustice and racial discrimination at home.

Once formed, racism and efforts to deny the regiment full participation in the war continued.  A Black unit was sent to the town of Spartanville, South Carolina and then to camps in Long Island and New Jersey where they faced hostility and rejection; they were even told not to retaliate.  This was in response to the perception that there would be riots; the media also participated in perpetuating the myth that Black regiments would be harmful to the war effort.  There was also a deliberate attempt to reject Black officers.  The government placed inexperienced and less qualified white officers over experienced non-commissioned Black officers.  This prolonged racism continued when the unit was initially sent overseas and although they had been trained for combat, they were relegated to serving as a labor battalion where they acted as stevedores, canal and ditch diggers until the French found it necessary to place them in combat.

Sammons and Morrow provide a comprehensive overview on the treatment of some of the soldiers upon their return to New York.  The Regiment is disbanded.  James Reese Europe, the band leader survives the war, but after achieving fame and performing a concert in Boston, Europe is fatally stabbed.   Charles Ward Fillmore, who led the effort to form a Black regiment in the New York National Guard, should have had an opportunity to lead the unit.  Like many other Blacks in the unit, he receives no American honors.

Horace Pippin, one of the non-commissioned officers and natural leaders, represents his wartime experience through his art.  Noble Sissle, a member of Europe’s Fifteenth Band and an advocate for the representation of Black performers on army bases and camps, was one of the Regiment’s most important narrators.  He is responsible for honoring the memory of General Gourard’s Fourth French Army and his dear friend James Reese Europe. These people are but a few of the many who are part of the historical record of the 369th Regiment.

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