Puerto Rico's Harlem Hellfighters
By By Nigel Thompson
via the AL DÍA NEWS web site
When considering the contributions of African-Americans to the U.S. armed forces, there are few individuals or groups more renowned than the 369th Infantry Regiment. Also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, it was one of the first predominantly African-American regiments to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. The troop served under French Command because the U.S. Army refused to recognize it, and spent six months on the front line, losing approximately 1,500 men. Their heroics earned them a regimental Croix de Guerre from the French Army.
But while the regiment’s heroics in the face of discrimination are an integral part of national African-American history, their cultural impact on Europe isn’t as recognized. The Hellfighters’ band, which performed all over France during the regiment’s deployment, is credited for bringing jazz to Europe. Even less known is the Afro-Puerto Rican heritage that many of the regiment’s members also shared and expressed in their time in Europe.
Formed in 1915, the Harlem Hellfighters didn’t include Puerto Ricans until 1917, when the President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act in March of that year. The act recognized Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens, though the island still remained a colony.
It was around this time that James Reese Europe visited Puerto Rico looking for musical talent. Europe was a star in Harlem’s music scene who signed up for service and received the duty of military band leader in addition to lieutenant.
Of the 44 members of the Hellfighters’ band, 18 were recruited from Puerto Rico. The island was a haven for musical talent, with a tradition of municipal bands that resembled military ones. Puerto Ricans’ unhindered access to instruments also meant they could learn more of a range of instruments,unlike their African-American bandmates, who were subject to Jim Crow laws, which forbid music education and access to more expensive brass instruments.
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