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WWI 'Harlem Hellfighters' Honored with Mural by Uptown Youth

By DNAinfo Staff on August 15, 2012 8:34am

CENTRAL HARLEM — A mural dedicated to the "Harlem Hellfighters" — the first African-American regiment to serve with the U.S. military during World War I — was unveiled Tuesday at the 369th Regiment Armory.

The mural was created by young artists from the Creative Arts Workshop, a nonprofit organization that provides after-school programs, workshops and full-time summer jobs to the youth in upper Manhattan. Eight artists aged 14 to 20, two CAW interns and a teaching artist were involved in the design and creation of the mural. 

The 369th infantry, nicknamed the "Hellfighters," is known for being the first African-American regiment to serve with the U.S. Armed Forces during World War I. The artwork depicts iconic figures tied to the Hellfighters’ rich history, as well as personalities, quotes and symbols that the young artists chose to portray. 

Miles DeSouza, 17, has been with the nonprofit for the last four years and helped create the mural. It took the group six weeks to complete it, and he said they worked about five-and-a-half hours a day for four days a week. 

“It’s not only about the art,” DeSouza said. “It’s about working with a team.”

DeSouza said they worked to incorporate as much of the Harlem infantry's history as possible.

But during the unveiling, a member of the audience commented that while the artists had represented the Hellfighters' friendship with the French, they had left out their relationship with other nationalities.

“It’s hard to include everything,” DeSouza replied. “We wanted to be able to strike a balance and make everyone happy.”

The brightly painted mural features early Hellfighter figures like James Reese Europe, a lieutenant who went on to direct the regimental band. It sparked a theme of music in the mural represented through musicians like Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Bob Marley.

Kate Sanders-Fleming, the teaching artist in-charge of the project, said she noticed the youth team open up to each other during the project. Older students began helping younger ones, whether it was through painting techniques or understanding the history of the Hellfighters.

“I saw a lot of buddying up and supporting of each other,” she said.

She added that the young artists came up with several figures portrayed in the mural, like a peace dove, shackled hands, and the female symbol with the Harlem Hellfighters logo placed within it, signifying women who served in the military.

“It was a collective decision,” Sanders-Fleming said.