Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War
April 18, 2014
The National Archives Noon Lectures Series presents Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality.
When on May 15, 1918 a French lieutenant warned Henry Johnson of the 369th to move back because of a possible enemy raid, Johnson reportedly replied: "I'm an American, and I never retreat." The story, even if apocryphal, captures the mythic status of the Harlem Rattlers, the AfricanAmerican combat unit that grew out of the 15th New York National Guard, who were said to have never lost a man to capture or a foot of ground that had been taken. It also, in its insistence on American identity, points to a truth at the heart of this book--more than fighting to make the world safe for democracy, the black men of the 369th fought to convince America to live up to its democratic promise. It is this aspect of the storied regiment's history--its place within the larger movement of African Americans for full citizenship in the face of virulent racism--that Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War brings to the fore.
With sweeping vision, historical precision, and unparalleled research, this book will stand as the definitive study of the 369th. Though discussed in numerous histories and featured in popular culture (most famously the film Stormy Weather and the novel Jazz), the 369th has become more a matter of mythology than grounded, factually accurate history--a situation that authors Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow, Jr. set out to right. Their book--which eschews the regiment's famous nickname, the "Harlem Hellfighters," a name never embraced by the unit itself--tells the full story of the self-proclaimed Harlem Rattlers. Combining the "fighting focus" of military history with the insights of social commentary, Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War reveals the centrality of military service and war to the quest for equality as it details the origins, evolution, combat exploits, and postwar struggles of the 369th.
The authors take up the internal dynamics of the regiment as well as external pressures, paying particular attention to the environment created by the presence of both black and white officers in the unit. They also explore the role of women--in particular, the Women's Auxiliary of the 369th--as partners in the struggle for full citizenship. From its beginnings in the 15th New York National Guard through its training in the explosive atmosphere in the South, its singular performance in the French army during World War I, and the pathos of postwar adjustment--this book reveals as never before the details of the Harlem Rattlers' experience, the poignant history of some of its heroes, its place in the story of both World War I and the African American campaign for equality--and its full importance in our understanding of American history.
The National Archives presents a series of noontime public programs. These book talks are free and open to the public and will be held in the William G. McGowan Theater of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. Attendees should use the Special Events entrance on Constitution Avenue at 7th Street, NW. Metro accessible on the Yellow and Green lines, Archives/Navy Memorial/Penn Quarter station.
Jeffrey T. Sammons, a native of Bridgeton, N.J., is a professor of history at New York University, where he has taught since 1989. He earned his B.A. in history at Rutgers College where he was graduated magna cum laude and elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1971. He earned a masters degree in history from Tufts University in 1974 and became assistant to the President of Lincoln University, before receiving a Whitney M. Young Memorial Fellowship for Leadership Potential in 1975. With that Fellowship and subsequent support from the Southern Fellowships Fund and the University of North Carolina, Sammons earned a PhD in American History in 1982. From there, he took a position as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston. In 1983-84 he was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Cape Town. Sammons also served until recently as Secretary and President of the Beta Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at NYU and is a National Senator of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
In 1987, Sammons was named a Henry Rutgers Research Fellow at Rutgers University-Camden and completed his critically acclaimed Beyond the Ring: The Role of Boxing in American Society. In 2001 Sammons was awarded a fellowship by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and History and soon after received a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for 2002-2003 in support of the soon-to-be-published Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War with John H. Morrow, Jr.
Sammons is now deeply involved in the efforts of the USGA and PGA to collect, preserve, and represent that which relates to the African American experience in golf and will write his next book on race/racism in the sport. Sammons has served on the editorial board of The Journal of Sport History and is an assistant editor of Sport and Social Issues. He has also taught at Princeton University and at Hollins College (Roanoke, Va.) as a Jessie Ball DuPont Scholar.
Dr. John H. Morrow, Jr., Franklin Professor of History at The University of Georgia, earned his BA with Honors in History from Swarthmore College and his PhD in Modern European History from the University of Pennsylvania. In 1971 Professor Morrow became the first African American faculty member in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he taught for seventeen years. During that time he was selected a National Alumni Association Outstanding Teacher and University of Tennessee Macebearer, the highest honor that a faculty member can receive. Morrow served as Head of the UTK History Department from 1983 to his departure from the University in 1988.
Morrow was invited to join the faculty of the University of Georgia in 1988 as Franklin Professor, and in 1991 was elected History Department Chairman, a position to which the faculty elected him again in 2010. He served as Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences from 1993 to 1995 before returning to fulltime teaching and research. Twice selected an Honors Professor for superior teaching, he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in the history of Modern Europe and of warfare and society. He taught German history as a visiting professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point spring semester 2005, for which the Department of the Army awarded him its Outstanding Civilian Service Medal.
In 1988-89 Morrow was the Charles A. Lindbergh Visiting Professor at the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), where he consulted on the design of the present gallery on World War I aviation. Morrow has been an invited lecturer at such institutions as the National War College, the Air War College, and the U.S. Military Academy, and he has chaired the History Advisory Committee to the Secretary of the Air Force, the Research Advisory Committee of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), and the Search Committee for the Director of the NMAH. He served on the History Advisory Committee of the Department of the Army, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial Commission’s Legacy Committee, and he is presently a member of the Presidential Counselors of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA.
The author of the books German Airpower in World War I (1982) and Building German Airpower (1976), Professor Morrow's book, The Great War in the Air: Military Aviation from 1909 to 1921 (1993 ), is considered the definitive study of air power in the First World War. His edited volume, A Yankee Ace in the RAF. The World War I Letters of Captain Bogart Rogers, appeared in 1996. His comprehensive history of the First World War, The Great War: An Imperial History, was published by Routledge Press in 2004 (paperback, 2005) and has just appeared in a centennial edition. His chapter on “The World Wars in a Century of Violence” appeared in the American Historical Association’s volume on the twentieth century (2011) and was also released as a pamphlet. He wrote the chapter on the air war in the Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (1998 ) and the chapters on the air war and the imperial context in the Cambridge History of the First World War (2014). Most recently, the University of Kansas Press released Jeffrey T. Sammons’s and Morrow’s book, Harlem’s Rattlers and the Great War: The Undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American Quest for Equality, in March 2014.