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African-American Sacrifice within the Killing Fields of France

SÉCHAULT, France — The modest granite monument on the entrance to Séchault, a village in jap France, commemorates the sacrifice of the USA 369th Infantry Regiment, African-People who got here from Harlem to battle within the final months of World Conflict I. A single phrase in brackets, “Coloured,” alludes to the official identify of the New York Nationwide Guard unit from which the troopers have been drawn.

They have been the Black warriors of the segregated American armed forces. Denied a send-off parade in New York earlier than transport out in 1917, assigned to the French Military as a result of their very own countrymen refused to battle alongside them, they gave their lives in such numbers throughout 191 days of steady fight that they earned for his or her bravery the moniker “Harlem Hellfighters.”

It seems that this nickname was given the unit by their German enemy, who known as them “Höllenkämpfer.” However it took the U.S. Military greater than a century to undertake it because the official particular designation for the 369th Infantry Regiment, a distinction authorized by the Military solely final September and introduced this 12 months by the New York Nationwide Guard on the eve of Black Historical past Month.

It has been an extended street from this quiet nook of France to such recognition.

Behind the monument, within the pale winter daylight, a patchwork of fertile fields extends to the horizon. Among the most blood-soaked earth in Europe now gives a scene of undulating tranquillity. Wheat, beets and hops develop the place American, French and German lives have been extinguished, too younger.

Slender roads wind between forgotten villages of the Champagne-Ardenne area, their church spires beckoning, their abandoned streets emptied by the regular exodus of commerce and younger individuals to larger cities.

Right here, in scenes of unutterable and now scarcely possible carnage, as troopers poured “excessive” from their trenches, the two,000 troops of the 369th suffered a few of the worst casualties of any American regiment, with about 144 lifeless and nearly 1,000 wounded within the Meuse-Argonne offensive of September-November 1918 alone.

“We’ve got a small ceremony each Nov. 11, Armistice Day, however in any other case there are only a few guests,” mentioned René Salez, the lately elected mayor of the village of about 60 inhabitants, as we stood one current afternoon close to the monument to the 169th Regiment. “There are usually not many street indicators to Séchault. The one ceremonies in our church are funerals. However I’ve a couple of concepts for a revival as soon as the pandemic ends.”

For his or her bravery in capturing Séchault from the Germans on Sept. 29, 1918, and for different fight motion, the regiment was awarded France’s highest army honor, the Croix de Guerre, quickly after the battle. It was additionally given to many particular person troopers within the unit for his or her gallantry. In his 1936 memoir, “From Harlem to the Rhine,” Arthur W. Little described casualties in his unit as “hideous and steady,” with “lots of of harmless males” pushed to their deaths.

French honor got here earlier than American for these Black patriots of the 369th demanding solely equal remedy.

Mr. Salez, 66, a person of partaking power and a prepared smile, goals of a hikers’ path connecting the monument — a replica of which stands in Harlem — to a different, forgotten on a hilltop a few mile away.

Topped by the tattered remnants of an American flag, this second memorial is lichen-stained and shell-damaged from World Conflict II. It’s inscribed on its 4 sides with the names of the lifeless from the 371st Infantry Regiment, one other African-American unit that fought right here in 1918.

“I ought to have cleaned it,” Mr. Salez mentioned after we trudged over a muddy area to get to the opposite monument. We gazed throughout the countryside, and he pointed to the wooden alongside which he would love his imagined path to proceed to the positioning of a former area hospital. “Will probably be simpler as soon as my undertaking is accomplished.”

The Hellfighters have been composed principally of New Yorkers who lobbied exhausting to steer Gov. Charles Whitman to kind the all-Black unit in 1916, a 12 months earlier than the USA entered World Conflict I.

As reported by Erick Trickey in Smithsonian Journal, Governor Whitman named William Hayward, his former marketing campaign supervisor and a Nebraska Nationwide Guard colonel, as commander of those “porters, doormen or elevator operators, some lecturers, evening watchmen or mailmen,” who needed to battle for the nation that segregated them.

Slurs have been hurled on the unit, which originated because the “15th New York (Coloured) Infantry Regiment,” throughout fight coaching in Spartanburg, S.C., a stronghold of the Jim Crow South.

Additional insult adopted in France. The unit, after doing menial work on arrival in December 1917, was barred from integration with different American troops and assigned to the 16th Division of the French Military, which accepted the troopers with out hesitation.

As Mr. Hayward would write of Gen. John Pershing, the commander of American Expeditionary Forces, in a letter quoted by Smithsonian, “Our nice American common merely put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell, and went away.”

France took the orphan in.

At a time when France’s universalist social mannequin, which refuses to quantify or categorize residents by race or faith, is commonly criticized in the USA as little greater than a camouflage for discrimination towards Muslims or individuals of coloration, the story of the 369th is a reminder that prejudice is aware of no boundaries. Not for nothing did Black American writers and artists — together with Richard Wright, Josephine Baker and James Baldwin — discover in France a freedom that they felt denied in the USA.

In a current article, “The Phantasm of a France in Black and White,” in Le Monde, Philippe Bernard wrote that there will be “no query of denying the racial discrimination that aggravates social injustice.” On the similar time, he argued, “enclosing anybody within the mounted identification of ‘colonized’ or ‘Black’ or ‘oppressed’” tends to “deepen fractures somewhat than cut back them.”

The 369th Regiment broke obstacles. Its marching band, shaped below the bandleader James Reese Europe, introduced new jazz rhythms to France. His music “On Patrol in No Man’s Land” speaks of the fear of trench warfare: “Down, hug the bottom, shut as you may, don’t stand, creep and crawl, comply with me, that’s all.”

Having been denied a send-off, the surviving troops paraded victoriously up Fifth Avenue and on to Harlem on their return in 1919. They have been returning heroes. However the glory was short-lived, as was the breakthrough.

Pvt. Henry Johnson, who had proven extraordinary bravery in battle, disappeared from view after accusing white troopers of racism in March 1919 and died destitute a decade later. He was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama in 2015.

As I made my approach by way of the streets of Séchault, I considered a Black Vietnam vet, Jerome Wilson, whom I met final 12 months in Georgia. He instructed me about being about to deploy to Vietnam in 1968 and having to go within the again door of a Dairy Queen to get a burger, after which, in army uniform, having to enter the bus taking him to Fort Benning by way of the again door.

“I used to be going to battle for my nation, perhaps die, and I used to be solely ok for the again doorways,” he mentioned. That was a half-century after the sacrifice of the 369th Regiment, which returned to search out segregation intact.

Mr. Salez took me to the German cemetery on the opposite aspect of the village, the place the stays of 6,454 German troopers killed in World Conflict I lie, greater than half of them by no means recognized. Grey crosses, in rows, stretched away below oak bushes.

Among the many crosses have been a dozen stone slabs, resembling stela. I approached and noticed that they have been engraved with the Star of David and the names of German Jewish troopers — Siegfried Grunewald, Jakob Guggenheim, Julius Kahn — who fought and died as German patriots a few many years earlier than their nation would determine to ship its Jews to the gasoline chambers of the demise camps.

The teachings of Séchault in patriotic sacrifice and injustice are many and various. On the oak bushes within the cemetery I observed that chicken homes have been affixed: demise and life in a single place and, regardless of the whole lot, it appeared, some glimmer of hope.


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