My wife Laura and I decided to purchase and renovate an old house on Decatur Street in Manchester. The house was listed for sale by an African-American family as part of an estate sale. At 3,176 square feet, it is a very large house for the area. To make the task at hand even more daunting, the home was absolutely loaded with old belongings that were left behind by the family.
In cleaning out all the old stuff, one particular item caught our eye-an old family photograph of a group of African-American soldiers from WWI. The framed picture contained the following caption at the top: Co M. 15TH REGT. NY INFANTRY AT CAMP PEEKSKILL, 1917. The photograph piqued my interest so I decided to do a little research on the 15th Regiment. And wow, what an incredible story I found!
According to Anthony F. Gero’s Black Soldiers of New York State: A Proud Legacy, the 15th regiment, nicknamed the Heavy Foot, went into camp at Peekskill, New York in May of 1917. The black soldiers were given little to no training relative to other white units and assigned guard duty at various sites in New York and New Jersey. Given the lack of integration of the US military, the 15th regiment bristled at being relegated to guard duty while white units were being properly trained before being sent overseas to fight.
Eventually both the newly created white and black New York Infantry units were scheduled to leave for South Carolina before being shipped overseas. A grand parade down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue was scheduled to see the men off. But there was one problem according to Gero:
“When the 69th Infantry, New York National Guard paraded in New York City as part of the 42nd Division, nicknamed the Rainbow Division, the 15th was not allowed to join in. When Colonel Hayward was informed of the reason why his regiment was not being sent with the Rainbow Division, he was told it was because black was not a color of the rainbow.”
Colonel Hayward, who was in charge of the 15th Regiment, reportedly responded angrily: “Damn their going away parade! We’ll have a parade of our own when we come home-those of us who come home-and it will be a parade that will make history!”
Subjected to poor treatment both before and during deployment to France, the 15th (later renamed the 369th) would not be deterred. Despite numerous indignations, the German enemy referred to “the black American Soldiers as ‘Hell Fighters’ which pleased the French, who had nothing but praise for these American regiments assigned to their formations.” Notwithstanding the 15th’s courageous fighting, the US Army stopped all pay for the black soldiers and they were denied special Thanksgiving and Christmas rations that were being distributed to white regiments. Despite the injustice, the black regiment soldiered on.
According to Gero, “the regiment’s record was outstanding. It had remained under enemy force for 191 days, without relief, and suffered 1,500 men killed and wounded. Within its ranks, 171 officers and men got either the Legion of Honor or the Croix de Guerre. Several were awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross. The regiment never lost a man through capture, or lost a trench, not a foot of ground to the enemy. It had been the ‘first to the Rhine’ and was deserving of its title of ‘Hell Fighters.'”
Thankfully, the story has an inspiring and happy ending when the regiment returned to America:
“Once in New York City, the regiment had a parade of epic proportions. Passing by the reviewing stand on 5th Avenue, where Governor Al Smith stood, the regiment marched in massed formation. Playing French military music that rebounded off the buildings, Europe’s band heralded the 369th’s return. When the regiment turned up Lenox Avenue at 130th Street, the band struck up the song Here Comes My Daddy to the thousands of joyous Harlem spectators. Let Major Little have the last word on the 369th’s History:
The 15th Heavy Foot was a self-made regiment of the American Army. It started without tradition, without education, and without friends. In all its career it never had even one thoroughly equipped first class officer as a member of the regiment. It never had an American Army instructor come from outside to try and teach it anything, until about two months after the armistice had been signed, when, while waiting for a ship to take us home…a young officer from a military school who had never heard a hostile shot, lectured the regiment upon…the open sight in battle.”
Why this incredible American history of the black 15th Regiment hasn’t been made into a movie is beyond me. It just goes to show that history is better than fiction. Hollywood should tell this inspiring story of the many sacrifices made by a group of brave black soldiers more than a hundred years ago in an attempt to protect their country and further the cause for racial equality as a result.
And it is because of the amazing legacy of the 15th Regiment that I sincerely believe that black does in fact deserve to be a color of the rainbow.
Credits: Anthony F. Gero’s Black Soldiers of New York State: A Proud Legacy