Black History Month: Newberry Museum exhibit honors the Harlem Hellfighters

Updated: Feb. 22, 2021 at 3:49 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - A new exhibit at the Newberry Museum celebrates the historic Harlem Hellfighters and their influence on the Harlem Renaissance, which continues to shape African American culture, today. This Black History Month, we remember one of the most decorated U.S. regiments.

Sheridan Murray is the Newberry Museum director. She said, “We wanted to make sure to recognize our own soldiers who fought in this regiment, but also tell the really unique story of how the 369th made their mark historically.”

In the early 1900s, African Americans who joined the Army were not allowed to fight with White troops. Instead, they were sent to various camps to perform labor.

“In 1917, the 369th New York National Guard infantry regiment became, not only the first African Americans to fight during World War I, but also the first all-Black troop that was sent overseas to fight,” said Murray.

That includes Prosperity’s own Tarrence Moon, who enlisted in Newberry County in 1917.

Unable to fight with their fellow American troops because of segregation, the 369th regiment troops were sent overseas to fight alongside the French and would soon gain quite the reputation, even among those on the other side.

Murray explained how “the Germans said that in around 200 days of battle, the Harlem Hellfighters did not lose one soldier to capture nor did they lose one foot of ground to the enemy. Which, if your enemies are praising you to that extent, that’s a big deal,” she said with a chuckle, adding that, “They spent more time under fire than any other U.S. troops in World War I. They received 171 separate citations for bravery for individual soldiers. They also got the Croix de Guerre, which is France’s highest military honor.”

It was German soldiers who gave the 369th regiment the nickname, the Harlem Hellfighters.

Their accomplishments went beyond the battlefield. They were also recognized for the 369th regiment band.

“A lot of the French folks who were listening to their music were hearing Jazz for the first time,” said Murray.

Upon their return to the U.S., their music helped pave the way, not only for Jazz but also the Harlem Renaissance, a period considered a golden age in African American culture.

Norma Donaldson-Jenkins is a Newberry Museum board member. She said, “The Renaissance influenced people to dig deep and to express themselves through the arts: through writing, through poetry, through dance, through song, through music.”

That impact continues today. In addition to the Harlem Hellfighters exhibit, the Newberry Museum also reached out to local Black artists asking them to share their work. Those pieces are also on display to show the influence of the Harlem Renaissance living on through the arts, even today.

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