Veteran Battles NY State Over Preservation of Harlem Hellfighters Artifacts

By Jeff Mays on March 19, 2013 9:11am | Updated on March 19, 2013 9:14am

HARLEM — The photo shows a proud, one-legged black World War I veteran standing on crutches on Lenox Avenue. The man is there to greet his fellow returning soldiers from the 369th Infantry Regiment, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, the nation's first black regiment to serve overseas during World War I.

Retired Maj. Gen. Nathaniel James, head of the 369th Historical Society, believes it may be the only remaining copy of the photo of the soldier, who lived a few blocks away until his death more than 20 years ago. It sits in a display at the armory at Fifth Avenue and 142nd Street, named after the 369th Infantry Regiment, along with 500 other artifacts from the historic unit.

"This is a famous unit but it was ignored," said James, the former commanding general of the New York Army National Guard, describing how he found many of the photos and uniforms strewn about the armory decades ago. "No one knew some of this stuff was here. It was just dumped on the second floor."

Now that James' group has organized the artifacts into an exhibit featuring the 369th's engagements from World War I to Operation Iraqi Freedom, he's worried that it will be lost, as the State of New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs plans to begin renovating the armory, which was built in 1933, as soon as October.

The state has warned James to begin to "find proper storage for Society owned records, artifacts and materials," and another meeting space, Mark R. Warnecke, acting director of facilities management and engineering, wrote in a letter to James.

The state plans to undertake an extensive renovation of the dilapidated 216,000-square-foot Art Deco and medieval design armory, including replacing the electrical, plumbing, heating and communication systems. The configuration of the armory will be changed to "accommodate the needs of today's military," Warnecke wrote.

The project will take at least three years from start to finish, but military officials say that timeline is just an estimate.

Warnecke said the state plans to design a historical exhibition for the 369th in the renovated armory that would take into account input from stakeholders and could include material from the historical society's collection. Care will also be taken to preserve the historical elements of the armory, such as the doorknobs that bear the 369th's insignia.

"We are very concerned about the history of the armory and the history of the unit," said Eric Durr, director of public affairs for the New York Division of Military and Naval Affairs.

But James, while he remains willing to help design the new exhibit, sees the notification differently.

"It's a simple letter that says: 'Gen. James, move out!'" he said.

Instead of planning a celebration for the 100th anniversary of the 369th, which was founded in 1916, his group is fighting just to keep the memory of the unit alive.

James says he's wary of turning over any of the artifacts to the state given the condition in which many of the items were originally found. On top of that, the society was formed to present a full picture of the contributions of the 369th Regiment.

"The military has not taken care of that property since it was there," said James, who worries that most of his artifacts won't be placed into the exhibit. "Who do you want to keep your family history?"

The 369th Infantry Regiment has a rich history. The regiment was sent to Europe during World War I but was assigned menial tasks because of the military's segregationist policies.

Eventually, the regiment was transferred to French command, where it blossomed. The unit fought so fiercely that it never gave up ground that the soldiers had captured.

The regiment was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French military honor, and the officers and troops received more individual awards for valor than any other American unit during World War I.

Inside the armory, an exhibit is dedicated to Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson, two privates who fought off a group of 24 German soldiers who had attacked their outpost. The pair became war heroes and a source of great pride in the black community after the incident was reported.

Another exhibit celebrates the regiment's band leader, James Reese Europe, who is credited with introducing what would become known as jazz to Europe.

"When I was coming up in school the only history about blacks that was taught was Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and slavery but there was so much more," James said. "The 369th is a part of American history."

Every year, the 369th Historical Society welcomes 400 school children to teach them about the history that was almost forgotten. Many of them have never heard of the 369th, James said.

"The Germans wondered why they were such fierce fighters. It's because they were fighting for equality," he added.

It's one of the reasons James says he remains skeptical of the state's plans. If he turns all of the artifacts over to the state he's afraid they will pick a few they are interested in and "toss the rest in a closet somewhere."

Many of the items are originals. If not, they are copies of photos where the original or negatives no longer exist.

Durr said some of the society's archives are likely state property, such as the guns and ammunition the regiment brought home from various conflicts, stored in a locked room. At other armories, historical items have disappeared during renovations.

"We found that things would walk away or things that should have been in an armory are on sale on eBay," Durr said.

During previous armory renovations, the military history unit would catalog items and create professional museum quality displays. That's what Durr says happened at the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th streets during its renovation.

One display case shows various uniforms worn by the 1st Battalion, 69th Infantry, which is stationed at the armory.

"They went from sitting in a display case with a label to being displayed professionally," Durr said.

The Division of Military and Naval Affairs wants to do the same thing at the 369th armory, but Durr acknowledges they wouldn't be able to assure that all of the pieces appear in the exhibit.

A memorandum of understanding would have to be signed turning the items over to the state before they appear in the exhibit, Durr said.

"We will not store privately owned property at state expense because that is not fair to the taxpayers," Durr said.

That's why James says there is only one solution.

"We need our own building. These things are one of a kind," he added.

James has reached out to Assemblyman Keith Wright and Rep. Charles Rangel, himself a veteran who received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his service in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, for help in relocating the artifacts. The group is also writing grant applications to help fund storage and a new home.

"These items belong to Harlem and they belong in Harlem," James said.

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