Aunt Beatrice Comes to the Defense of the “Harlem Hellfighters”

The 369th Infantry Regiment, known initially as the 15th National Guard New York, was the first black infantry allowed to fight in World War I. The regiment was commanded by Col. William Hayward, a member of the Union League Club of New York, which sponsored the 369th in the tradition of the 20th U.S. Colored Infantry, which the club had sponsored in the U.S. Civil War.

Known for their toughness, the Germans nicknamed them the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The most celebrated man in the 369th was Pvt. Henry Johnson, a former Albany, New York, rail station porter, who earned the nickname “Black Death” for his actions in combat in France. In May 1918 Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts fought off a 24-man German patrol, though both were severely wounded.

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My great aunt Beatrice Jackson defended members of the regiment against claims they were causing trouble at the “peek-a-boos.”

The 369th Regiment band became one of the most famous military bands throughout Europe. During the war the band (under the direction of James Reese Europe) became famous throughout Europe. It introduced the until-then unknown music called jazz to British, French and other European audiences.

Prior to shipping out to France in December 1917, the regiment trained at Camp Whitman near Peekskill, NY. While at the camp, members of the regiment would frequent a strip club (known back then as “peek-a-boos”) in nearby Tarrytown, NY. In a 1917 letter to the Tarrytown Daily News, my great aunt Beatrice Jackson defended members of the regiment against claims that they were causing trouble at the “peek-a-boos.”

Uncle Wesley Jackson: World War I Volunteer and Writer

I want to salute my Grand Uncle Wesley Jackson. Uncle Wesley was the first born of my great grandparents “Momma Addie” Jackson and Clarence “Papa Jack” Jackson. In 1917, during WW I, he enlisted in the Army (his original enlistment card is below) where he was a cook, a common duty for black enlistees. While stationed at Camp Hill in Newport News, VA, Uncle Wesley, wrote a “Letter to the Editor” to his hometown newspaper, the Tarrytown (NY) Daily News. As you can tell by the excerpt below, Uncle Wesley was a gifted writer.Uncle Wesley GraphicFollowing his service in the Army and spending time in France as a member of the American Expeditionary Force,  Uncle Wesley was honorably discharged in 1919. He and would later work with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Whitehall, VT and Yorktown, VA. Uncle Wesley died in Appomattox, VA at the age of 46.

 

A vision of racial and social uplift

“Some people think it is almost a crime to be a Negro. As for me, I am proud to belong to a race that has made such progress in fifty years of freedom, yes, and proud to belong to that race that, in spite of all abuse, has never known a traitor.”
                                                                                     — Beatrice H. Jackson, 1917
This fragment of a newspaper column written in 1917 by my great aunt, Beatrice Jackson, inspired my interest in learning more about my family history.

 

One of the inspirations for my interest in researching my family’s history was a fragment of a newspaper column I discovered among the articles, photos and other documents that I unearthed in my grandparents basement in 2009. The fragment, it turns out, was from a letter to the editor of the Tarrytown (N.Y.) Daily News written in 1917 by my great aunt, Beatrice Jackson. The letter, which ended with the words you see above, was written in response to the charge of treason that was being leveled against some of the black soldiers fighting for the U.S. in World War I.

I’d later uncover several other letters to the editor penned by my Aunt Beatrice, all of them displaying a very progressive racial and social

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In the early 1900s, my great aunt Beatrice Jackson (pictured as a teenager) wrote several Letters to the Editor that were published in the Tarrytown (N.Y.) Daily News.

consciousness. That racial solidarity has emerged as a unifying theme as I’ve learned more about the lives of my ancestors. It also inspired my blog’s subtitle, “Lifting As We Climb.”

In future blogs, you’ll see that this theme of racial uplift was at the heart of the contributions of several of my ancestors, most notably Aunt Beatrice and my great grandmother, Addie Wilkins Jackson–or “Momma Addie” as she was affectionally called.