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Theater Arts of the Allies in the Great War (March 2013): African American Contributions

By Felicia Hardison Londré

African American Contributions

The contributions of African Americans to the war effort have been the subject of a number of books, with particular attention paid to the 369th Infantry Regiment, 93rd Division, familiarly known as the Harlem Hellfighters.[1]  The black volunteer soldiers earned the “hellfighter” epithet in battle, but the name applied also to their regimental band, which performed morale-bolstering concerts for hospitalized soldiers and French civilians.  Under composer-bandleader James Reese Europe, the soldier-musicians won a wide following for the jazz style that was evolving out of ragtime.  Before the Great War, the remarkable bandleader and his Society Orchestra had toured with Vernon and Irene Castle.  Europe’s collaboration with them is skillfully recounted in Eve Golden’s Vernon and Irene Castle’s Ragtime Revolution.  But once the war started, Europe wanted to fight and got commissioned as a first lieutenant in charge of a machine-gun unit in the Harlem Hellfighters.  Among his compositions inspired by battlefield experiences is the rousing number “On Patrol in No Man’s Land.”  Europe figures prominently in any book on African Americans in the Great War, but two are notable for treating his musical accomplishments alongside his military experience: Reid Badger’s A Life in Ragtime: A Biography of James Reese Europe and Stephen Harris’s Harlem’s Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I.  Europe and his band figure prominently in Bill Harris’s The Hellfighters of Harlem: African-American Soldiers Who Fought for the Right to Fight for Their Country.  Serving in France with Europe was Noble Sissle, who later achieved musical theater stardom with Eubie Blake.  Sissle’s wartime service is documented alongside that of Europe in news clippings, letters, and photographs in Robert Kimball and William Bolcom’s Reminiscing with Sissle and Blake.

Looking at the African American jazz influence that the war took to France, William Shack devotes a chapter to “jazz from the trenches” in World War I in his Harlem in Montmartre: A Paris Jazz Story between the Great Wars.  Tyler Stovall’s Paris Noir: African Americans in the City of Light devotes a chapter to each decade from the Great War to the 1960s, and it includes writers and dancers as well as musicians.  James Weldon Johnson’s Black Manhattan takes a lively look at the aftermath of the war and how it impacted blacks in New York City in the Jazz Age.  The 1968 edition of this volume includes a preface by Allan Spear.


[1] Other works on the Harlem Hellfighters include The Harlem Hellfighters: When Pride Met Courage by Walter Dean Myers and Bill Miles (HarperCollins, 2006).