Harlem’s Rattlers: African American Regiment of the New York National Guard in World War I

On June 29, 1916, the 15th Regiment (Colored) was born and was incorporated into the New York National Guard, or so it seemed. The term "Colored," however, was far more than a mere designation; it was a stigmatizing speech-act relegating to separate and unequal status the first such African American unit to be officially recognized by the state. When the New York National Guard was called into federal service for World War I, the 15th was not an integral component of the 27th Division (formerly the 6th Division). The only instance in which it trained with the 27th Division was for a brief period in October 1917 in Spartanburg, South Carolina, of all places, before being sent to France to avoid a racial war at home. When the regiment arrived in France in December 1917, it was all alone and deployed as a labor unit—building roads, digging canals, and unloading ships. The work was not only arduous but demeaning and demoralizing, as these men had trained for combat.

The 15th Regiment Infantry of the New York National Guard in France, ca. 1917 (National Archives)

In an act of expediency and convenience, General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing acceded to the desperate pleas of the French military for American combat troops and assigned the dispensable, newly designated 369th Infantry of the 93rd Provisional Division to the French 4th Army. The placement with the French was an undeniable instance of good fortune, as the 369th was engaged in four major battles, for which the entire unit received the Croix de Guerre (Cross of War), as did 174 individual soldiers. An Army artist's rendering of the 369th in action at Séchault, France, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, September 29, 1918. (US Army)At least eleven officers and men received the Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest American military honor. The regiment was on the front 191 days—the longest of any American unit—and never lost a foot of ground it had taken or a single man to capture, thanks in large part to Henry Johnson, who, along with Neadom Roberts, repelled a German raiding party of twenty-four men. For his actions, Johnson received the Croix de Guerre with Palm, the highest level at which the honor is given. Not until 1996 did Johnson receive an American medal, the Purple Heart, followed by the Distinguished Service Cross in 2003, and the Medal of Honor in 2015, the last only after years of intense advocacy and fact-finding. He was the second African American in WWI to receive the nation’s highest military honor. Not to be forgotten is that the 369th arguably had the greatest band in the US Army. Led by the gifted musician and composer, Lt. James Reese Europe, the band introduced live jazz to European audiences and revolutionized military music in the process, especially by integrating woodwinds played largely by musicians from Puerto Rico.

The above summarizes the more well-known and triumphalist history of the regiment and its accomplishments. What follows is a more tortured tale of the long and difficult struggle by black men and women to bring about the formation and recognition of an institution that they claimed as a civic right, as blacks had long linked full citizenship to patriotism, military service, and heroism. New York had a deep history of hostility toward African Americans, and the fight for a black National Guard unit reveals a troubled past too often forgotten, elided, and denied.

Civil War recruiting broadside, ca. 1863. (Private Collection)On March 5, 1863, the New York Tribune published Frederick Douglass’s "Men of Color, To Arms!" Douglass had succeeded in persuading the authorities and even President Lincoln himself that a war fought by the South to guarantee the perpetual enslavement of blacks logically called for "colored men" to suppress it, as "the arm of the slave was the best defense against the arm of the slaveholder."[1] Douglass then needed to convince his black brethren to follow his lead, emphasizing that "liberty won by white men would lose half its luster."[2] Douglass made his call from Rochester, New York, but informed his intended audience of New Yorkers that the state did not call black men to this honor and remained silent on the subject. The path to attack "the throat of treason and slavery" went through Massachusetts, "the first in the war of Independence; first to break the chains of her slaves; first to make the black man equal before the law; first to admit colored children to her common schools."[3] That state produced the Massachusetts 54th—subject of the film Glory—and the less heralded 55th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteer Infantry. New York had no such record of enlightenment on individual liberty or in the use of black soldiers. Its gradual abolition law in 1799 and another in 1817 allowed slavery to continue into the 1830s. During the war, Republican governor Edwin Denison Morgan, despite his support for the Union, unsuccessfully proposed that northern states should repeal their Personal Liberty Bills so as to restore teeth to the dreaded Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The most telling example of the precarious standing and despised presence of blacks in New York came on July 13, 1863, during the second day of a new military draft lottery in New York City. Demonstrations erupted across the city in what began as an organized opposition to the first federally mandated conscription laws in the nation’s history but soon devolved into a violent uprising against the city’s wealthy elite, its African American residents, and the very idea of the Civil War itself. The New York City Draft Riots, which would wreak havoc on the city for five days, exposed the deep racial, economic, and social divides that threatened to tear the country’s largest city apart in the midst of the nation’s greatest crisis. Despite their history of voluntary military activity and organization, blacks could not obtain state authorization for a military unit in the Civil War. The black outfits that came from New York were privately sponsored by the Union League Club. Postwar efforts at military organization were eventually thwarted by an 1883 law that forbade unauthorized units to parade with weapons.

In 1895, Governor Levi P. Morton signed into law a civil rights bill that entitled blacks to full access to public accommodations, from restaurants to theaters to transportation. Many condemned the measure as the worst kind of government intervention in "social relations" and "higher law." It is within this atmosphere that another difficult struggle for black representation in the state’s military came with the onset of the Spanish-American War. At war’s outbreak, the Republican governor, Frank S. Black, rebuffed the offer of prominent New York citizens to raise a black regiment. Governor Black’s rejection helped to galvanize an organized campaign that emerged fully in 1910–1911.

Developments in Chicago, New York’s rival as the Black Metropolis, also stirred passions for a black regiment. Shortly after the turn of the century, black New Yorkers envied and coveted the 8th Illinois Regiment, led and represented solely by black men from the top down, and believed that their growing numbers and increasing political organization and influence effectively positioned them to forge a change in a seemingly intractable pattern of deception and denial from local to national levels of government. Advocates of a New York regiment had coalesced in an uneasy alliance of black Republicans and Democrats dedicated to fighting housing discrimination, to promoting the patronage of black businesses, and to securing representation of blacks in municipal government, especially the police and fire departments. Above all, these activists led the struggle to establish a black regiment. The resultant organization became known as the Equity Congress of Greater New York. The leader of the campaign for a regiment was a former Ohio National Guardsman and Spanish-American War veteran, Charles Ward Fillmore.

In the absence of favorable signs for the legislation, the Equity Congress decided to take matters into its own hands by organizing a provisional regiment and seeking National Guard approval for inclusion into its ranks. Unfortunately, Maj. Gen. John F. O’Ryan, commander of the NYNG, openly opposed a black infantry regiment. The New York Age surmised that the "social equality" bugaboo was behind O’Ryan’s opposition and astutely concluded that the National Guard saw itself as a "social, instead of a military organization, which makes it possible for them to shine at pink teas in gold braid, etc."[4] In a meeting with Fillmore, O’Ryan extended an invitation for him and his men to affiliate with service units that white men avoided as degrading. Soldiers of the 369th who won the Croix de Guerre, 1919. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Storms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor. (National Archives)When Fillmore rejected the offer, O’Ryan appealed to putative black pretentiousness and vanity by informing him that the men would wear fancy uniforms. Fillmore reportedly countered, "Colored men were looking for more than pretty suits; they were desirous of positions of honor and trust."[5]

On May 2, 1913, a regiment bill finally passed both houses of the New York legislature with little opposition. As the deadline for gubernatorial action approached, a "delegation of colored men," which included members of the United Colored Democracy and the Equity Congress, raced to Albany and urged the governor, William Sulzer, to approve.[6] Sulzer signed the bill, claiming, with characteristic pomposity, that disapproval of the bill "would have belied all that I have been talking about and doing for the past quarter of a century"—acting on the principle that there should be "no discrimination against citizens in matters of race, creed, or color."[7] Despite the order calling for the authorizing act to take effect immediately, the state’s National Guard leadership obstructed implementation through delay and subterfuge. The latter involved failing almost every candidate for the officer exam. Louis Stotesbury, a member of an examination board in 1913, admitted later that the authorizing legislation "was hardly treated with sincerity."[8] Despite what appeared to be insurmountable odds, Fillmore kept the provisional regiment intact so as to be ready when the right moment came. With the election in 1914 of the Republican and Union League Club member Charles Seymour Whitman as governor of New York, the prospects of the regiment movement improved. Two years would pass, however, before the approaching war and manpower shortages in the New York National Guard provided Whitman the opening to act on the 1913 law. In May 1916 he announced his intention and by June the seemingly impossible had been realized, but not without disappointing terms—a white commander and an almost all-white officer cadre would lead the unit. Yet, if the commander had to be white, William Hayward—a native Nebraskan, Public Service Commissioner, Union League Club member, and close friend of the governor—was an ideal choice. For the most part, he lived up to his belief that blacks "ought to be given an opportunity to shine in the National Guard without prejudice."[9]

And shine they did, but not without the essential work of the Women’s Auxiliary of the 15th Regiment. Seemingly less ambivalent about supporting the war than most of their white counterparts, many black women assumed roles they believed would increase their standing as citizens and respectable ladies. As Alice Dunbar-Nelson put it, "Into this maelstrom of war activity the women of the Negro race hurled themselves jealously."[10] A call by the National League for Women’s Service to help the nation in its moment of crisis prompted "a few thoughtful women of the race" to cooperate with the Woman’s Loyal Union of Greater New York to coordinate the response. These women immediately turned their attention to the 15th Regiment as a community institution and instrument of their aspirations. Led by Susan Elizabeth Frazier, president of the Women’s Loyal Union and the first black woman to teach in an integrated school in New York City, the delegation—which included Elizabeth and Helen Mae Fillmore, the wife and daughter, respectively, of Capt. Charles Fillmore—presented its plans for assisting the regiment to Fillmore, who introduced them to Colonel Hayward. Hayward granted official recognition to the organization on May 9, 1917, and encouraged them to recruit others to lend assistance. They provided food, clothing, and money to dependent families and prepared comfort kits for the men. They were also responsible for identifying soldiers whose families depended on them for financial support. (Such men were considered poor prospects for soldiering and often were relieved of their duties.) These women were determined to transcend the typical support roles reserved for them. Shortly after the East St. Louis riot of July 1917, the Women’s Auxiliary of the 15th spoke out in indignation against wrongdoing "heaped upon a race always prayerful, long suffering, truly American, ever patriotic, and loyal to the interests of our country."[11] Members, including the auxiliary’s first vice president, Maria Coles Lawton, helped to organize and lead the historic Silent Protest Parade of July 28, 1917, which, according to Alessandra Lorini, expressed itself in the language of utopia and countered the "dehumanizing grotesque" characterizations of blacks, casting New York’s black citizens as moral witnesses "to the nation’s Bastille of prejudice."[12]

Welcoming home the soldiers of the 369th at a parade in New York City, 1919 (National Archives)Realizing the parade alone would not achieve the desired results, its leaders petitioned President Woodrow Wilson and linked the ideals of the war with the reality at home by claiming that "no nation that seeks to fight the battles of civilization can afford to march in blood-smeared garments." M. C. Lawton signed the document as did Madame C. J. Walker, wealthy black entrepreneur, civil rights activist, and close friend of the 15th. William Miles’s classic film Men of Bronze characterizes the 15th Auxiliary as a group of neighborhood ladies. They were anything but that. None personified their competence and significance more than Ms. Lawton, who remained a leader of the social, civic, labor, church, and political life of the black community and beyond for many years to come. The M. C. Lawton Club—dedicated to community service, educational advancement, race relations, and self-development—is an outgrowth of the 15th Auxiliary and a testament to her legacy. In the end, these women revealed more than anything that war should be as much about living up to ideals as it is about fighting for them.

[1] Frederick Douglass, "Men of Color, To Arms!" (March 2, 1863), 1, https://www.loc.gov/resource/mfd.22005/?st=gallery

[2] Douglass, 2.

[3] Douglass, 3.

[4] New York Age, Jan. 23, 1913, 1.

[5] New York Age, Jan. 23, 1913, 1.

[6] New York Age, June 5, 1913, 1.

[7] New York Age, June 5, 1913, 1.

[8] Louis Stotesbury to Arthur W. Little, Nov. 4, 1936, From Harlem to the Rhine File, New York State Military Museum, Saratoga Springs, NY.

[9] In Arthur W. Little, From Harlem to the Rhine: The Story of New York’s Colored Volunteers (New York: Covici Friede, 1936), 112.

[10] Quoted in Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow, Jr., Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014), 124.

[11] New York Times, July 16, 1917, 9.

[12] Alessandra Lorini, Rituals of Race: American Public Culture and the Search for Racial Democracy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999), 245–248.

Jeffrey Sammons is Professor of History at New York University. He is the author of Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society (University of Illinois Press, 1988) and the co-author, with John H. Morrow, Jr., of Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality (University Press of Kansas, 2014).