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Black History Month: How the influence of the Harlem Hellfighters continues today

Updated: Feb. 26, 2021 at 3:42 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - After sharing the story of the Harlem Hellfighters, our Black History Month coverage continues with a look at how their work, on and off the battlefield, continues to inspire people today.

They’re considered one of the most decorated U.S. Army regiments says Sheridan Murray, the Newberry Museum director.

“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.

Earning their nickname, the Harlem Hellfighters, from their enemies added Murray who said, “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.”

Troops with the 369th also made a splash overseas because of their regiment band. Introducing those in France to jazz, with the French saying they had never heard music played that way before.

Murray said, “Other French musicians would ask questions, ‘how do you know to play music this way?”

They continued to inspire the musical world upon their return to the U.S., paving the way for the Harlem Renaissance.

Norma Donaldson-Jenkins is a Newberry Museum board member. She said, “We were wondering what about that influence. These people found their voice. Are African American artists still finding their voice using the arts? So, we put out a call to ask people, African Americans, with ties to Newberry to respond to how they found their voice using their creative outlet.”

12 local artists have responded to that call and you’ll now find their work on display at the Newberry Museum in the form of quilts, paintings, sculptures, and books.

Including local author, Diann Price Williams, who read an excerpt from her children’s book “Gran Ma on Being Different.”

“There was once a slug that was not brown. The slug was a pale, clear white color all over. He looked so different from all the other slugs and he was treated different from all the other brown slugs, too,” read Price Williams.

Donaldson-Jenkins said, “As African Americans, we have something to say. You may not always have your voice to say it, but there are some people who say, ‘I don’t know what to say, but through painting, I can say so much.”

You can see the Harlem Hellfighters exhibit, as well as the artwork of local artists inspired by the Harlem Renaissance at the Newberry Museum through June 19. Admission is free.

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