Effort underway to give WWI's Harlem Hellfighters the recognition they deserve

HARLEM, Manhattan (WABC) -- Congressman Tom Suozzi was joined by Harlem leaders Thursday to announce he is introducing legislation that would award a Congressional Gold Medal to the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters.

The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act would bestow what Suozzi calls long-overdue recognition of the bravery and outstanding service of Harlem Hellfighters during World War I.

"They never lost an inch of ground," Suozzi said. "Suffered many injuries but never had anyone taken as a POW."

The Harlem Hellfighters were a Black infantry regiment in WWI that spent more time in combat than any other American regiment.

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In 1918, the U.S. Army decided to assign the regiment 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.

Despite their courage, sacrifice, and dedication to their country, they returned home to face racism and segregation from their fellow countrymen.

"A great failure of this country is how we treated African Americans throughout our history, and this is just another example of it," Suozzi said.

They were the most celebrated African American regiment in WWI, and they were also on the ground during World War II.

Suozzi was joined by former Assemblyman Keith Wright, whose grandfather was a Harlem Hellfighter.

"When they came home, it was almost as if they had no home to come back to," Wright said. "Fought for freedom of another country, but they didn't find freedom themselves."

Most were from Harlem, but 36 soldiers lived in Glen Cove -- including Debra Willett's grandfather Leander Willlett.

"I could use the current words, woke and ally," she said. "But words I want to say, the words: Honor, gratitude and most importantly, America."

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They are words these men deserved to hear long ago, and Suozzi posthumously awarded Leander Willlett a Purple Heart in November of 2019.

Also in attendance were former Congressman Charlie Rangel, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Brian Benjamin, Assemblywoman Inez Dickens, and Jérémie Robert, the Consul General of France in New York.

"We have fought and died in every war," said Rangel, a veteran himself. "In order to make this country better."

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."

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