Introduction: The Harlem Hellfighters' Great War (01:38)
President Obama awards the Medal of Honor to Pvt. Henry Johnson. Experts reflect on the service of black soldiers and American society. (Credits)
World War I Soldiers (04:32)
The Harlem Hellfighters was an all-black volunteer unit. The soldiers received a homecoming parade but soon faced the racist aspects of American society.
Great Migration (04:06)
Many black Americans migrated north, where discrimination was less harsh. Henry Johnson and James Reese Europe moved with their parents to New York. Johnson worked as a porter and Europe became an established musician. W.E.B. DuBois became a spokesman for millions of African Americans.
World War I (04:36)
America refused to enter the war but economically benefited through trade. President Woodrow Wilson was forced to allow the United States into the war to defend democracy and human rights. It was a contradiction for black Americans living as second class citizens.
National Guard Units (05:34)
The American military was segregated but National Guard units were open to the enlistment of black soldiers. Harlem was home to the 15th regiment. Johnson was working as a porter when he joined, but Europe was a well-known jazz musician.
Harlem Hellfighters Go to War (06:56)
The unit, under control of Colonel William Hayward, left for France in December 1917. The soldiers hoped fighting for the U.S. would grant then full citizenship. In France, they were put in segregated barracks and assigned manual labor.
Under French Command (05:48)
The Harlem Hellfighters' band, led by Europe, escaped manual labor and were welcomed by French soldiers. Eventually, the unit was placed under French command in a combat unit. Separated from American units, the black soldiers were treated equally.
Johnson's Heroic Act (03:56)
Johnson and fellow private Needham Roberts were on guard duty when a German patrol attacked their trench. Johnson saved Roberts from capture and defeated multiple Germans, who then withdrew. The next day, American journalists learned about what Johnson had done.
Harlem Hellfighers' Popularity (04:00)
Europe fell victim to a gas attack; he wrote music while in the hospital. The unit gained recognition through Johnson's bravery and Europe's wartime song. American military leadership worried the Hellfighters' success would cause unrest at home and they tried to spread racism in France.
Harlem Hellighters' Success (03:40)
The unit participated in a counteroffensive that retook part of the Argonne Forest; they spent the longest amount of time at the front. The French military awarded 170 soldiers the Croix de Guerre, making them the most decorated American unit of the war.
Harlem Hellfighters Return Home (06:42)
In February 1919, the unit proudly paraded in New York, the color line forgotten. The soldiers faced violence almost immediately upon return to their communities. General Pershing forbad black soldiers from attending the Paris Victory Parade in July; soldiers realized their hope for freedom was unfounded.
Credits: The Harlem Hellfighters' Great War (00:44)
Credits: The Harlem Hellfighters' Great War
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