Last month Congressman Tom Suozzi attended a White House signing ceremony in the Oval Office as President Joseph Biden signed legislation to award the Harlem Hellfighters a long-overdue Congressional Gold Medal.
“It is never too late to do the right thing. When I first met with the Willett family and listened to their stories, I knew we had to get this done and today, with the president’s signature, the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act is now law,” Suozzi said. “Awarding the Harlem Hellfighters the Congressional Gold Medal ensures that generations of Americans will now fully comprehend the selfless service, sacrifices and heroism displayed by these men in spite of the pervasive racism and segregation of the times. I am grateful to the many people who helped see this long-overdue recognition come to fruition, including Senator Charles Schumer, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Adriano Espaillat.”
Espaillat, of Harlem, is one of the lead co-sponsors of the legislation.
The Harlem Hellfighters’ Congressional Gold Medal represents only the 179th ever awarded to institutions, people or events, since the American Revolution.
Background on the Harlem Hellfighters:
The Harlem Hellfighters were an African American infantry regiment in WWI that spent 191 days in combat, more than any other American regiment. In 1918, the U.S. Army decided to assign the Hellfighters to the French Army for the duration of American participation in World War I because many white American soldiers refused to perform combat duty with African Americans. The U.S. Army refused to issue the regiment weapons. They were instead issued French weapons, helmets, belts and pouches, although they continued to wear their U.S. uniforms.
Nicknamed “Hommes de Bronze” (Men of Bronze) by the French and “Hollenkampfer” (Hellfighters) by the Germans due to their tenacity, the Hellfighters were the first unit of the French, British, or American armies to reach the Rhine River at the end of the war. The unit earned 11 French citations and a unit Croix de Guerre and 170 soldiers were awarded the French Croix de Guerre.
Despite the courage, sacrifice and dedication proudly displayed by the Harlem Hellfighters to their country, they returned home to face racism and segregation from their fellow countrymen.
Background on work with the Willett Family:
In 2019, Suozzi was approached by the Glen Cove Willett family (represented today by Debra Willett) for help in obtaining a Purple Heart for Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willett. After initially being declined for lack of documentation, Suozzi and his office persevered and were able to secure the necessary documentation through the National Personnel Records Center. In November of 2019, at a ceremony at Glen Cove’s North Shore Historical Museum, Suozzi surprised the Willett family by presenting a posthumous Purple Heart to Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willett “for wounds received as a result of hostile actions” in France on Oct. 4, 1918.
Background on the Congressional Gold Medal:
The Congressional Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the United States Congress, to honor those, individually or as a group, “who have performed an achievement that has an impact on American history and culture that is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field, long after the achievement.” The practice of issuing gold medals to honor recipients from the military began during the American Revolution.
The Congressional Gold Medal will be designed and struck by the United States Mint and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and at events associated with the Harlem Hellfighters. Bronze versions of the medals are struck for sale by the U.S. Mint, and may be available in both larger and smaller sizes.
There have been only two other Congressional Gold Medals awarded to distinguished African American military groups: the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 and the Montfort Point Marines in 2011, both from World War II.