SARATOGA SPRINGS, New York - Contractors replacing a 99-year-old granite cornerstone plaque at the New York National Guard’s Harlem Armory drill floor found a sealed copper box inside the stone Feb. 19.
The armory, home of the New York Army National Guard’s 369th Sustainment Brigade, was built to house the 369th Infantry Regiment — the drill hall in 1921-24 and the administrative building in the 1930s — made famous during their service in World War I as the Harlem Hellfighters.
Originally the 15th Infantry, New York National Guard, the regiment of Black Soldiers commanded mostly by white officers fought as part of a French division.
Renumbered as the 369th U.S. Infantry, the regiment spent 191 days in combat, never retreated and accumulated 170 French Croix de Guerre awards for heroism.
The mystery box’s contents highlighted the pride of Black New Yorkers in their regiment, their culture, and city officials’ recognition of the 369th and the black community, according to Courtney Burns, the director of the New York State Military Museum in Saratoga Springs.
Boxes like this were a way of reaching out to the future, Burns said.
The ceremonial cornerstone was laid May 27, 1923, by New York City Mayor John Francis Hylan, who had also broken ground for the armory in November 1921.
William Hayward, who commanded the 369th in France and was then the U.S. attorney for New York, spoke at the ceremony, as did Rep. Fiorello LaGuardia, who later became mayor of New York City.
The team at the New York State Military Museum couldn’t find any mention of the time capsule left in the cornerstone in reports of the event.
So, when construction crews took off the decaying granite with 1922 chiseled on it, they were surprised to find a hollowed-out area with the box inside, said Capt. Douglas Peters, the project manager for the Harlem Armory.
The workers reported what they found, carefully removed it, took photos and turned it over to the New York National Guard facilities office.
The box went to Burns, the custodian of thousands of historical artifacts from the New York National Guard’s 44 armories and the flagship museum in Saratoga Springs.
“Honestly, I had no idea what to expect,” Burns said. “We had no idea what was in there. And the shape of it — it was like a large shoebox — it could have been anything, it could have been small little souvenirs, like medals or coins.”
By the time Burns felt he was finally ready to open the box without damaging it March 10, it felt a little bit like opening the tomb of Tutankhamun.
“It is a copper box. It was soldered around the top. We just took a screwdriver and cold chisel and carefully tapped around it so we could break the seal and then pried it up enough,” he said. “It was actually really kind of fun and exciting opening it.”
Burns discovered a trove of printed materials that “represents a specific point in time.”
“It represents a real sense of celebration of this achievement, this milestone in African-American history; for the construction of a building for an African-American unit that would have been inconceivable before,” Burns said.
“It is an acknowledgment, too, of the contributions of the 369th. It really recognizes what they did in Europe,” he added.
Many of the items carefully packed inside the box are directly related to the 369th Infantry Regiment.
These included five issues of the “New York Age,” a weekly African-American newspaper, highlighting the service of the “15th New York,” as it was then known.
The May 25, 1918, issue headline reads: “French decorate 2 men of the 15th.”
The story highlights the award of the Croix de Guerre to Pvt. Henry Johnson, who posthumously received the Medal of Honor in 2015, and Pvt. Needham Roberts for their heroism in defeating a German patrol.
The Nov. 23, 1918, headline reads: “Old 15th in lead on the Western Front: In most advanced position on the Western Front as the fighting stops.”
There are two typewritten histories of the 369th, one that concludes May 27, 1923, the date the cornerstone of the armory was laid.
There is a program for the showing of a movie called “Hell Fighters” at the Lafayette Theater May 15, 1920, during which the regiment’s band played.
There is also a list of the members of the various New York City boards responsible for funding the construction of the armory, indicating their support for the project.
“I don’t know if they envisioned a benefit to the city or if there was just a consensus that something needed to be provided for Harlem. Not only the 369th itself, but the community,” Burns said.
This document was signed by people associated with the 369th, including Noble Sissle, who served in the 369th band and went on to write the song “I’m Just Wild About Harry.”
The documents included in the box focused on more than just the 369th; they addressed broader themes of African-American accomplishment, Burns said.
A program for a New York City memorial honoring the life of Col. Charles Young, also held May 27, 1923, was included in the time capsule.
Young, who graduated from West Point in 1889, commanded the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry Regiment in the Philippines and Mexican intervention and served as military attache in Haiti and Liberia.
Young died in Africa in 1922. In 1923, his remains were brought and interred at Arlington National Cemetery.
Speakers at the event included Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the son of the former president, and Black author and activist W.E.B. Dubois.
The Dec. 25, 1922, issue of the National Review was also in the box. The magazine described itself as “A journal Devoted to the Progress and Development of the Colored People.”
Burns said he was also surprised to see many items from the company that built the armory’s steel framework, Post and McCord of New York City.
The firm built Ebbetts Field, the long-time home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, many New York commercial buildings and the steel frame of the Empire State Building in 1930.
There were four promotional books from Post and McCord. Two highlighted projects from 1917 and two from 1920. There was also a photograph of Paul Francis Needlhan, the son of Capt. Lawrence V. Needlhan, the superintendent of construction of the project.
Post and McCord also deposited the payroll for the 198 people working on the building for the week of May 17-24, 1923. Most of the employees worked five days a week for eight hours and a half day on Saturday and earned $49.50 a week.
Finally, there was a photograph labeled “Priv. Josiah A. Thomas/died Feb. 19 ’22 “Co. C.” On the back, in the same handwriting, is the inscription, “From Cousin Irma J. Rock.”
Burns said his goal is to create an online exhibit that will allow the public to view the documents deposited in that copper box 99 years ago.
“As a whole, you really get a sense of community pride and vibrancy within the African-American community,” Burns said. “Even though this is something that was administered by the city, its content is very specific towards the 369th and the African-American community in general.”