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Harlem Hellfighters (Book)

Found in: social studies, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12

Harlem Hellfighters (2014) is a book written by J. Patrick Lewis and illustrated by Gary Kelley. Ideal for grades 4-7, it's the story of The Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment, a regiment of 2000 African American New Yorkers. (The U.S. Army was segregated) Some were musicians under the leadership of bandleader James Reese Europe. Initially restricted to support duties, the 369th ultimately fought beside the French and became known as “the regiment that never lost a man captured, a trench, or a foot of ground.” Of 2000 soldiers, 1500 were killed or wounded. Yet despite their sacrifice, the soldiers of the 369th found little changed when they returned home. The author and illustrator tell the story of warriors and musicians in free verse and evocative pictures. Illustrator notes identify the well-known inspirations for some of the images. Another book, The Harlem Hellfighters (2014) written by Max Brooks and illustrated by Caanan White, is a 272 page graphic retelling in black and white panels, geared for grades 5-12. Find these books FREE at your public library or for purchase at 

Here are some lessons, activities, and resources to use with the books.


Background Resources:

  • Remembering Henry Johnson, the Soldier Called “Black Death” relates the war and post-war experience of the first African American to be awarded the Croix de Guerre.
  • Harlem Hellfighters A video (6:00) examines the lack of respect given the contributions of African American soldiers during and after WWI. It highlights Henry Johnson. “One of the five bravest soldiers in the Great War,” said Theodore Roosevelt. Johnson was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France and neglected by his own country.
  • The Harlem Hellfighters: Fighting Racism In The Trenches Of WWI (4:35) is an interview with Max Brooks, author of the graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters.
  • CDs of bandleader James Reese Europe’s music are available. Lieut. Jim Europe’s 369th U.S. Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band, The Compete Recordings on the Memphis Archives label includes a 44 page book.
  • And African American Sheet Music includes three songs written by James Reese Europe.


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