Posted on January 30th, 2017
Last week, U.S. History students at William Penn studied the 369th Infantry Regiment, an African American unit who served in World War I, but whose story was nearly lost in history until recent years.
The “Harlem Hellfighters,” as the group was nicknamed, trained to fight in combat, only to be relegated to menial tasks after arriving in France.
They finally had a chance to prove themselves after General Pershing, who refused to allow any of his white troops to fight in the Allied units, assigned the Harlem Hellfighters to the French forces. They became one of the most highly decorated American units in WWI.
One of the soldiers, Sgt. Henry Johnson, single-handedly killed four German soldiers and wounded over 20 more, while saving his comrades from a surprise attack.
Despite his heroic efforts, Johnson and many other African Americans returned to a segregated post-war America that did not respect or recognize their service. Johnson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2015.
Asked why it is important to remember and honor the Harlem Hellfighters, students gave the following responses:
“The acts of bravery of these men were great. They were segregated but they still fought for this country!”- Shyzere Stahle, Class of 2018
“Black men/ Strong and Bold/ A man named Henry Johnson/ A Story they haven’t told”- excerpt of poem by Toiyonda Orr, Class of 2018
“Johnson went home a hero but died, at 32, penniless.” – Lesly Rodriguez, Class of 2019
“The Harlem Hellfighters were the most courageous group of soldiers in WWI, despite being the worst treated.” –Sha-kim Wright II, Class of 2018
“They helped change the public’s opinion of African American soldiers and paved the way for future black soldiers.” – Roxxana Rijo, Class of 2018
— Maggie S. Mafnas, York High Social Studies Teacher