Major Progress in Suozzi, Espaillat and Beatty’s Efforts to Create Congressional Gold Medal for Harlem Hellfighters
Overwhelmingly Passes House of Representatives
Gillibrand Introduces Companion Bill in Senate
As a result of the efforts of Congressman Tom Suozzi (D-NY), Congressman Adriano Espaillat (D-NY), Congresswoman Joyce Beatty (D-OH), and the Congressional Black Caucus rallying their colleagues to right a centuries-old injustice, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act, legislation to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the Harlem Hellfighters.
The legislation now heads to the U.S. Senate where it will be led by U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
During WWI, the Harlem Hellfighters, an infantry regiment of the New York Army National Guard that consisted of mainly African Americans, were not permitted to fight alongside their fellow white soldiers in the United States Army. They were instead assigned to the French, who issued them their weapons and helmets. Despite the racism and segregation they faced, these U.S. soldiers, wearing their United States uniforms, went on to be the most active regiment during all of WWI, yet never received formal recognition from the Federal Government for their service.
“It is never too late to do the right thing and today’s passage represent great progress toward righting a centuries old injustice,” said Rep. Suozzi. “My hometown of Glen Cove was home to nearly three dozen Harlem Hellfighter heroes. The bravery, dedication, and sacrifices of the Harlem Hellfighters, who served 191 days under near-constant enemy fire, impacted the outcome of the first World War and in turn, American history. My legislation to award The Harlem Hellfighters a Congressional Gold Medal is a small but important first step in righting this decades-old injustice.”
“The Harlem Hellfighters are incredibly deserving of the highest honor of the Congressional Gold Medal for their bravery, dedication, perseverance, and service to our nation,” said Rep. Espaillat. “I am proud to join Rep. Suozzi in leading this critical bill to passage in the House, so we can recognize the distinguished African American and Puerto Rican men of the 369th Infantry Regiment who never lost a man or a trench to the enemy and so we can commemorate their efforts to help our nation and allied forces secure victory. Their invaluable contributions to allied forces during WWI and WWII should never been forgotten, and their service to our nation must be formally recognized.”
“The Harlem Hellfighters risked life and limb in defense of an America that discriminated against them,” Rep. Beatty said. “Yet, the Hellfighters helped liberate Western Europe and secure victory for Allied Forces.” She added, “More than 100 years after these brave men fought so valiantly, I am proud that my congressional colleagues have taken the long-overdue, critically important first step to honor the Harlem Hellfighters for their exemplary service on behalf of a very grateful nation.”
“The brave Black men of the Harlem Hellfighters displayed unparalleled courage and bravery as they fought to defend democracy overseas, only to return home to racism and systemic discrimination,” said Senator Gillibrand. “It’s long past time we fully honor these valiant heroes, and I am proud to work alongside my House colleagues Representatives Suozzi and Espaillat, to create a Congressional Gold Medal to deliver this important recognition.”
Fighting to ensure that the Harlem Hellfighters are recognized for their service has been a priority of Suozzi’s. In 2019, Suozzi was approached by the Glen Cove Willett family to help obtain a Purple Heart for Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willett. After initially being declined for lack of documentation, Suozzi and his office persevered and were able to secure the necessary documentation through the National Personnel Records Center. In November of 2019, at a ceremony at Glen Cove’s North Shore Historical Museum, Suozzi surprised the Willett family by presenting a posthumous Purple Heart to Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willett “for wounds received as a result of hostile actions” in France on October 4, 1918.
“The Willett family has served in the United States military dating back to the Civil War. We are extremely grateful to Congressman Suozzi for his efforts to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Harlem Hellfighters, of which my grandfather, Sgt. Leander Willett, was a proud member. It is our hope that this legislation will help educate future generations about the sacrifices made on their behalf. These brave men fought for America and the values we all cherish. As we say in our family, ‘long overdue, but just the start.’ Thank you to Congressman Suozzi, Congressman Espaillat, and all of the cosponsors of this important legislation. It’s never too late to do the right thing,” said Deb Willett, granddaughter of a former Harlem Hellfighter.
Brief History of the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Regiment Armory:
The Harlem Hellfighters were an African American infantry regiment in WWI who 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 near the end of the war. The unit earned 11 French citations and a unit Croix de Guerre, and 170 soldiers were individually 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.
Background on the 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.