In honor of Black History Month, Congressman Charles B. Rangel (D-NY) hosted a Special Capitol Hill briefing on the contributions Black veterans made during World War I, on February 25, 2016.
Congressman Rangel’s colleagues of the Congressional Black Caucus, Reps. Corrine Brown (D-FL), Sanford Bishop, Jr. (D-GA), Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO), and the World War I Centennial Commission.
“As a young soldier in the Korean War, I was honored to follow in the footsteps of many Blacks in the military before me who exhibited extraordinary patriotism abroad despite facing discrimination and challenges at home,”said Rangel. “I am proud to represent a congressional district that carries on the legacy of the Harlem Hellfighters of the 369th infantry division, who were heroes in World War I. We must continue to remember, preserve, and honor the contributions of the Black veterans who have made a huge impact in American history, yet are often forgotten.”
While Blacks fought in every war since the Revolutionary War, World War I was a transformative moment in Black history with lasting social, economic and political impact. The Great War took place during the era of Jim Crow segregation and the Great Migration, when between 1914 and 1920 roughly 500,000 Black southerners relocated to the North in search of a better life. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, many Blacks saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate their patriotism and their place as equal citizens in the nation.
Until the war ended on November 11, 1918, over 200,000 Blacks crossed the Atlantic and served in France. While the majority were placed in service units known as Service of Supply (SOS), the two black combat divisions, the 92nd and 93rd, made up of approximately 40,000 troops, did see battle. The 93rd Division’s 369th Infantry Regiment from Rangel’s congressional district in Harlem, New York, earned the nickname ‘Harlem Hellfighters,’ by the enemy for its combat performance. The Black soldiers in World War I yielded some of history’s greatest examples of perseverance.
“Many of these brave soldiers returned home with accolades and the pride of defending the greatest country in the world,” Rangel said. “Their dedication helped inspire Blacks across the nation to assert their citizenship and fight for racial justice at home.”
Panelists for the event included:
- Prof. Pellom McDaniels III of Emory University and author of forthcoming book, “Memoir of Royal Christian, a Black World War I Soldier,” who discussed the impact of World War I on African Americans socially, politically and economically;
- Prof. Jeffrey Sammons of New York University and author of “Harlem Rattlers and the Great War,” who recounted the first African American regiment to fight in World War I, the 369th Infantry Regiment;
- Prof. Nikki Brown of New Orleans University and author of “Private Politics and Public Voices: Black Women’s Activism from World War I to the New Deal,” who examined the impact of World War I on African American women’s political activism;
- Prof. Joel Beeson of West Virginia University and producer and director of the award-winning 2008 documentary, “Fighting on Two Fronts: the Untold Stories of African American WWII Veterans,” who noted the uncanny parallels between our present moment in history and the time before, during and after World War; and
- Dan Dayton, executive director of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, who discussed national partnership opportunities.
“The story of World War I is multifaceted, with many important lessons for us to embrace,” said Dayton. “This event helps us to better understand what happened one hundred years ago, and how it continues to touch our lives today.”
The U.S. World War I Centennial Commission was created by an Act of Congress to plan, develop, and execute programs, projects and activities to commemorate the Centennial of WWI. Over the next year, under Dayton’s leadership, the Commission will serve as the lead organizer for the nation’s commemorative events and will coordinate the activities thousands of individuals and institutions as they tell the story of the war such as this event.
“I am pleased that the Commission has partnered with us to highlight the significance of Blacks in the WWI,” said Rangel. “Much of this part in American history has been lost or forgotten, but we must remember the dedication and heroism of our Black soldiers to defending our nation’s vast array of freedoms and democracy around the world. Even though Black History Month ends in February, our fight for justice and equality abroad and at home will continue.”
The event was moderated by Ron Armstead, executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Veterans Braintrust, which was established in 1988 by Rangel. The Braintrust, which holds an annual forum at the Annual Legislative Conference, is currently co-chaired by Reps. Corrine Brown (D-FL), Senior Member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and Sanford Bishop, Jr. (D-GA), Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.