Legislation Honoring The Harlem Hellfighters The Congressional Gold Medal Head’s To President’s Desk, Says Espaillat

August 13, 2021

Today, at the 369th Infantry Regiment in Harlem, New York, Representative Adriano Espaillat joined Representative Tom Suozzi, along with U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Today, they announce legislation awarding the Harlem Hellfighters the Congressional Gold Medal will soon be signed into law by President Joe Biden.

Photos from the event can be found here.

“Today, more than 100 years after their heroic and selfless service to our nation, the Harlem Hellfighters will receive their long overdue and well-deserved Congressional Gold Medal. These patriots gave their all to America’s enduring struggle to secure global freedom while simultaneously being cast away from the very nation they swore an oath to protect. Nevertheless, they persevered, and it is never too late to right a wrong. I cannot think of a more deserving group of patriots to receive one of our nation’s highest military honors, and I was proud to work alongside Congressman Suozzi as well as Senators Gillibrand and Schumer to make today possible and ensure our country’s most revered patriots will finally receive rightful recognition and their place in America’s history,” said Rep. Espaillat.

“It is never too late to do the right thing. When I first met with the Willett Family and heard their stories, I knew we had to get this done – and this week, we got it done! This recognition for the Harlem Hellfighters is long overdue. I am grateful to Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, and Congressman Espaillat for helping to right this centuries old wrong. This recognition for the Harlem Hellfighters is long overdue,” said Rep. Suozzi.

“It is past time we rightfully recognize and honor the heroes of the 369th Infantry Regiment, who valiantly served our country during World War I,” said Senator Schumer. “The Harlem Hellfighters fought and sacrificed their lives for our country despite the discrimination they faced from fellow soldiers, and when they came home from battling on the front lines, they were again met with despicable acts of racism. These veterans must be recognized and honored for the heroes that they are. I was proud to cosponsor this legislation to distinguish these brave men for their service with the Congressional Gold Medal.”

“The Harlem Hellfighters served our nation with distinction, spending 191 days in the front-line trenches, all while displaying the American values of courage, dedication and sacrifice,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act honors these brave Black men, who, even as they faced segregation and prejudice at home, risked their lives to defend our freedoms overseas. I want to thank my House colleagues Representatives Suozzi and Espaillat for their outstanding partnership on this legislation and I look forward to President Biden signing this bill into law.”

Harlem Hellfighters

The Harlem Hellfighters were an African American infantry regiment in WWI that spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American regiment. In 1918, the U.S. Army decided to assign the Hellfighters to the French Army for the duration of American participation in World War I because many white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with African Americans. The U.S. Army refused to issue the regiment weapons. They were instead issued French weapons, helmets, belts, and pouches, although they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms.

Nicknamed “Hommes de Bronze” (Men of Bronze) by the French and “Hollenkampfer” (Hellfighters) by the Germans due to their tenacity, the Hellfighters were the first unit of the French, British, or American armies to reach the Rhine River at the end of the war. The unit earned 11 French citations and a unit Croix de Guerre and 170 soldiers were awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

Despite the courage, sacrifice, and dedication proudly displayed by the Harlem Hellfighters to their country, they returned home to face racism and segregation from their fellow countrymen.

Congressional Gold Medal

The Congressional Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the United States Congress, to honor those, individually or as a group, “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field, long after the achievement.” The practice of issuing gold medals to honor recipients from the military began during the American Revolution.

The Congressional Gold medal will be designed and struck by the United States Mint and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and at events associated with the Harlem Hellfighters. Bronze versions of the medals are struck for sale by the U.S. Mint, and may be available in both larger and smaller sizes.

There have been only two other Congressional Gold Medals awarded to distinguished African American military groups: the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 and the Montfort Point Marines in 2011, both from World War II.

Representative Espaillat is the first Dominican American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and his congressional district includes Harlem, East Harlem, West Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Inwood, Marble Hill and the northwest Bronx.

First elected to Congress in 2016, Representative Espaillat is serving his third term in Congress. Representative Espaillat currently serves as a member of the influential U.S. House Committee on Appropriations responsible for funding the federal government’s vital activities.

He is also a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC), where he serves as the Second Vice Chair and is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, where he serves as Deputy Whip.

Representative Espaillat also currently serves as a Senior Whip of the Democratic Caucus. To find out more about Rep. Espaillat, visit online at https://espaillat.house.gov/.

Photo credit: 1-3) HWM archives.

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