SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — It's African-American History Month and a fitting time to recall the black Soldiers of the New York National Guard's 15th Infantry Regiment, who never got a parade when they left for World War I in 1917.
There were New York City parades for the Guardsmen of the 27th Division and the 42nd Division and the draftee Soldiers of the 77th Division.
But when the commander of the 15th Infantry asked to march with the 42nd – nicknamed the Rainbow Division – he was reportedly told that "black is not a color of the rainbow" as part of the no.
But on Feb 17, 1919, when those 2,900 Soldiers came home as the "Harlem Hell Fighters" of the 369th Infantry Regiment, New York City residents, both white and black, packed the streets as they paraded up Fifth Avenue.
"Fifth Avenue Cheers Negro Veterans," said the headline in the New York Times.
"Men of 369th back from fields of valor acclaimed by thousands. Fine show of discipline. Harlem mad with joy over the return of its own. 'Black Death hailed as conquering hero'" headlines announced, descending the newspaper column, in the style of the day.
"Hayward leads heroic 369th in triumphal march," the New York Sun wrote.
"Throngs pay tribute to the Heroic 15th," proclaimed the New York Tribune.
"Theirs is the finest of records," the New York Tribune wrote in its coverage of the parade. "The entire regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre. Under fire for 191 days they never lost a prisoner or a foot of ground."
For that day, the Soldiers the French had nicknamed "Men of Bronze" were finally heroes in their hometown.
In the early 20th Century, black Americans could not join the New York National Guard. While there were African-American regiments in the Army there were none in the New York National Guard.
In 1916, New York Gov. Charles S. Whitman authorized the creation of the 15th New York Infantry to be manned by African-Americans – with white officers – and headquartered in Harlem where 50,000 of the 60,000 black residents of Manhattan lived in 1910.
When the New York National Guard went to war in 1917, so did the 15th New York. But when the unit showed up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, to train, the Soldiers met discrimination at every turn.
To get his men out of South Carolina, Col. William Hayward, the commander, pushed for his unit to go to France as soon as possible. So in December 1917, well before most American Soldiers, the men from Harlem arrived in France.
At first they served unloading supply ships.
But the French Army needed soldiers and the U.S. Army was ambivalent about black troops. So the 15th New York, now renamed the 369th Infantry, was sent to fight under French command, solving a problem for both armies.
In March 1918, the 369th was in combat. And while the American commander, Gen. John J. Pershing, restricted press reports on Soldiers and units under his command, the French Army did not.
When Pvt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts won the French Croix de Guerre for fighting off a German patrol it was big news in the United States. A country hungry for war news and American heroes discovered the 369th.
The 369th was in combat for 191 days; never losing a position, never losing a man as a prisoner, and only failing once to gain an objective. Their unit band, led by famed bandleader James Europe, became famous across France for playing jazz music.
When the 369th arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, on Feb. 10, 1919, the New York City Mayor's Committee of Welcome to the Homecoming Troops began planning the party.
On Monday, Feb. 17, the Soldiers traveled by ferry from Long Island and landed at East 34th Street.
They marched up Fifth Avenue and passed a reviewing stand that included Gov. Al Smith and Mayor John Hylan at Sixtieth Street. The official parade route would cover more than seven miles from 23rd Street to 145th Street and Lennox Avenue in Harlem.
"The negro soldiers were astonished at the hundreds of thousands who turned out to see them and New Yorkers, in their turn, were mightily impressed by the magnificent appearance of these fighting men," the New York times reported.
"Swinging up the avenue, keeping a step spring with the swagger of men proud of themselves and their organization, their rows of bayonets glancing in the sun, dull-painted steel basins on their heads, they made a spectacle that might justify pity for the Germans and explain why the boches gave them the title of the "Blutdurstig schwartze manner" or "Bloodthirsty Black men," the Times reporter wrote.
Lt. James Reese Europe marched with his band, the New York Tribune noted, while Sgt. Henry Johnson, who had killed four Germans and chased away 24 others, rode in a car because he had a "silver plate in his foot as a relic of that memorable occasion."
"He stood up in the car and clutched a great bouquet of lilies an admirer had handed him," the Tribune wrote about Johnson. "Waving this offering in one hand and his overseas hat in the other, the ebony hero's way up Fifth Avenue was a veritable triumph."
"Shouts of 'Oh you Henry Johnson' and 'Oh you Black Death,' resounded every few feet for seven long miles followed by condolences for the Kaiser's men," the New York Times reported
Along the route of the march Soldiers were tossed candy and cigarettes and flowers, the newspapers noted. Millionaire Henry Frick stood on the steps of his Fifth Avenue mansion and waved an American flag and cheered as the men marched past.
When the 369th turned off Fifth Avenue onto Lennox Avenue for the march into Harlem the welcome grew even louder, the New York Sun reported.
"There were roars of welcome that made all the music of the day shrink into itself," the Sun reporter wrote. And although the 369th Band had 100 musicians nobody could hear the music above the crowd noise, the reporter added.
People crammed themselves onto the sidewalk and into the windows of the buildings along the route to see their Soldiers come home.
"Thousands and thousands of rattlesnakes, the emblem of the 369th, each snake coiled, ready to strike, appeared everywhere, in buttonholes, in shop windows and on banners carried by the crowd," the New York Times reported.
"By the time the men reached 135th Street they were decorated with flowers like brides, husky black doughboys plunking along with bouquets under their arms and grins on their faces that one could see to read by," the Sun reported.
At 145th Street the parade came to its end and families went looking for their Soldiers.
"The fathers and mothers and wives and sweethearts of the men would no longer be denied and they swooped through police lines like water through a sieve," the Sun wrote.
"The Soldiers were too well trained to break ranks but when a mother spied her son and threw her arms around his neck with joy at getting him back again, he just hugged her off her feet," the paper wrote.
With the parade over, the men were guided into subway cars and headed to the Park Avenue Amory, home of the 71st Regiment, for a chicken dinner and more socializing. The regimental band, which had begun playing at 6 a.m. and performed all day, finally got a break during the dinner and the men lay down to rest.
The New York Times noted that the band boasted five kettle drums presented to the unit by the French Army "as a mark of esteem." They also had a drum captured from a German unit that had been "driven back so rapidly that they lost interest in bulky impedimentia."
The New York Times estimated that 10,000 people waited outside the armory and "all the spaces about the Armory were packed with negro women and girls." The Soldiers inside ate quickly and came back out to find their families.
"I saw the allied parade in Paris and thought that was about the biggest thing that had ever happened, but this had it stopped," Lt. James Reese Europe, the band's commander, told the New York Sun reporter as the party ran down.