When last my Black history script and I huddled in June, the protagonist was a woman, and the story focused on her and her nemesis’ careers. This time around, the scenes that got me ignited were the main male character’s relationships: Whom he loved privately because she appealed to him, and whom he loved publicly because of how he knew others would judge him.
A year earlier, America had implored Black men to fight for democracy abroad, while still being lynched regularly at home. Yet they signed up, hoping to earn respect and expanded rights that didn’t materialize. Some men were even lynched in uniform.
The likes of Langston Hughes (left, center of group) and Paul Robeson took an interest in the politics of Russia–then our ally–where the tender shoots of Communism had broken ground. Rather than hoarding money and land among the rich at the top, the system advocated resources be shared amongst the working class.
Black soldiers didn’t get much respect in the US, but our French allies, with whom the 369th regiment out of Harlem fought shoulder to shoulder, held them in high regard. The unit received that nation’s prestigious Croix de Guerre. While the Germans, against whom the US fought (Italy and Austria-Hungary being the other foes), called the 369th “the Harlem Hellfighters,” due to their toughness and reputation for never losing a man through capture, trench, or foot of ground, according to author Peter Nelson in A More Unbending Battle: The Harlem Hellfighters’ Struggle for Freedom in WWI and Equality at Home.
As they say, people in hell want ice water. And on Feb. 17, 1919, the 369th got a taste. They marched up Fifth Avenue from just below midtown Manhattan, well into Harlem, as hundreds of thousands–possibly even millions–turned out to cheer their bravery, and toss chocolate candy, cigarettes and coins from open windows as they passed. Black soldiers in Chicago, Savannah, GA, and other US cities enjoyed a similar heroes’ welcome.