Harlem Hellfighters: Caricatures of the “Enemy”

The Black men of the 369th Regiment were known in World War I by many names: the 15th New York Army National Guard at its formation in 1916, the 369th Infantry Regiment to the United States War Department when it was assigned to the French Army in 1918, and the Black Rattlers for the rattlesnake insignia adorning their uniforms.  The French called them the Men of Bronze; the Germans named them the Harlem Hellfighters.

But to White Americans, before they were heroes, before they were the 369th, they were “the Black Brutes.”

Fig. 1. Harry R. Hopps, Destroy this mad brute Enlist – U.S. Army, Library of Congress.

Kelly Miller, a prominent black writer and a dean at Howard University, described the wartime enemy as “the German, ungainly, acrimonious and obdurate. Part Saxon, part Hun, part Vandal and Visigoth, a creature of blood and iron.” (Miller)

This image of the German as a hulking, subhuman savage was a common image in American propaganda, as shown in the above poster from 1918. This caricatured Enemy was a familiar one to the American public: a hulking, subhuman savage; an apelike Brute stylized with not the pale complexion oft seen in the German populace, but with unmistakable black skin.

Fig. 2. Spicy-Adventure Stories April 1935, Wikimedia Commons.

White fear of the Brute existed long before the start of the world war; since the Reconstruction Era, anti-Black propaganda was featured in everything from pulp fiction to scientific journals. “The black brute is lurking in the dark,” George T. Winston wrote in the The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 1901, “a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal.” (109)

As seen in the 1918 poster, the dark-skinned Brute clutches a defenseless pale-skinned woman in its clutches; similarly, Black men were characterized by White America as savage predators who targeted helpless White women as their prey. “As long as rape [of White women] continues,” Representative Thomas U. Sisson of Mississippi passionately declared, “lynching will continue […] We are going to protect our [White] girls and womenfolk from these black brutes.” (Holden-Smith 55)

This was the government, this was the country that the Black men of the 369th Infantry Regiment signed up to defend.

So why would these men volunteer to enlist and risk their lives for a country that viewed them as nearly indistinguishable from the enemy?

Perhaps it was out of a sense of duty. “If this is our country,” wrote W.E.B. DuBois, Harlem’s foremost intellectual and editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, “then this is our war. We must fight with every ounce of blood and treasure.” (Slotkin 50-51)

Others might have enlisted out of opportunity; a hope for a better future for Black lives in America. From his pulpit of St. James Presbyterian Church, Reverend F.M. Hyden preached: “The future historian, when he comes to set down the facts in connection with the world war, should have before him the fact that colored men went to war not as an endorsement of the President, but as a measure of national defense…volunteered service in such a time as this constitutes…the strongest argument and the noblest appeal for political and economic rights which colored men could present to the nation after the war is over.” (Nelson 21)

Despite the honors won and lives lost by the men of the 369th Regiment, the “future historian” would set down the fact that the hope offered to those men and the greater African American community would be a false one. “Since when,” asked A. Philip Randolph in 1918, “has the subject race come out of a war with its rights and privileges accorded for such a participation….Did not the Negro fight in the Revolutionary War, with Crispus Attucks dying first….and come out to be a miserable chattel slave in this country for nearly one hundred years?” (Nelson 21)


Holden-Smith, Barbara. “Lynching, Federalism, and the Intersection of Race and Gender in the Progressive Era.” Yale Journal of Law & Feminism, vol. 8, no.1, 1995, pp. 31-78, https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1111&context=yjlf.
Hopps, Harry R. Destroy this mad brute Enlist – U.S. Army. 1918, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2010652057/.
Miller, Kelly. Kelly Miller’s History of The World War for Human Rights. Austin Jenkins Co., 1919. Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19179/19179-h/19179-h.htm.
Nelson, Peter N. A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters’ Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home. Basic Civitas Books, 2009.
Slotkin, Richard. Lost Battalions: The Great War and the Crisis of American Nationality. Henry Holt and Co., 2005.
Spicy-Adventure Stories April 1935. 1935, Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spicy-Adventure_Stories_April_1935 .jpg.
Winston, George T. “The Relation of the Whites to the Negroes.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 18, 1901, pp. 105–118. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1009885.


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