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.
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.”