The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage by Walter Dean Myers and Bill Miles is a book for ages 9-12 and chronicles the exploits of the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who were African-American soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment of World War 1. Miles writes the preface to the book and talks about his personal connection to the unit and Harlem, eventually becoming the unit historian.
“Hundreds of black men laid down their lives in France because they refused to believe that they were anything but men, worthy of being Americans and representing their country.” (Page IV)
Myers chronicles the presence of African Americans throughout military history starting from the French and Indian War through WWI. It also discusses the politics in Europe at the time, especially the desire of European nations to colonize developing countries and those nations rich with resources. Eventually, a division of partners arose, with Britain and France on one side and Germany and Austria-Hungary on the other. There are detailed accounts of trenches — how they were dug and how many sets of trenches there were and why — and the rise of modern mechanized weapons and warfare.
Once the foundation is laid down, Myers begins to discuss the problem of race in the United States, beginning in 1896 with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy vs. Ferguson, which enabled companies, counties, states, etc. to segregate whites and blacks so long as the facilities are “equal.” Not only was segregation a problem, but within the black community, men were reluctant to join the National Guard and possibly fight for the United States when they were unable to vote or have the same rights as their white counterparts. This reluctance was only overcome when a famous black composer James Reese Europe agreed to volunteer for the 15th New York National Guard or 15th Infantry Regiment. It took organizers in New York at least one year — between 1916 and 1917 — to reach peacetime size of 1,378 men to obtain federal recognition and additional funding.
The true gems of The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage by Walter Dean Myers and Bill Miles are the historic photos of those volunteering for the regiment, tenement farmers, and more as well as copies of War Department letters, newspaper columns, telegrams, posters, and other documents. Although some of the military background can be dry, the story Myers tells about the black soldiers and their struggle against segregation and the solidarity they found as part of the Harlem Hellfighters is inspiring. The stories of Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts offer additional perspective on how black men became soldiers and how they fought once abroad. There are other stories like theirs as well, and these personal accounts humanize these historical figures. The struggle against racism and segregation and early war and political background takes up most of the book, with only the remaining third telling the story of the Hellfighters in WWI France. For the younger age group that this book is aimed at, Myers does well to pinpoint individual soldiers’ stories, but readers of that age would likely pay closer attention to the historical aspects if there were more of these stories.
About the Author:
Walter Dean Myers is a New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author who has garnered much respect and admiration for his fiction, nonfiction, and poetry for young people. Winner of the first Michael L. Printz Award, he is considered one of the preeminent writers for children. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with his family.
William Miles was born in Harlem, New York, and has used his deep knowledge and experience of that borough to produce films that tell unique and often inspiring stories of Harlem’s history. Based at Thirteen/WNET in New York City, William Miles produced many films dedicated to the African-American experience that have been broadcast nationwide. Miles’ interest in creating historical documentaries was nurtured through 25 years of restoring archival films and early feature classics for Killiam Shows, Inc. and the Walter Reade Organization in New York City.
This is my 6th book for the WWI Reading Challenge.