Retired General Dedicates Life to Shedding Light on Forgotten Black Army Unit

Former general preserves history of Black army unit


A retired general of the New York Army National Guard is now embarking on a new mission to preserve the history of a Black Army unit that history books have long forgotten.

For more than 60 years, Maj. Gen. Nathaniel James, 79, has considered the armory at 142nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem, New York, his second home.

When the armory closed for renovations, however, he was forced to find another space until the construction is complete.

Everyone was told to have their belongings out of the armory in a matter of days, but James had much more to move than just a desk and a nameplate.

Back in 1959, he discovered a room full of artifacts from World War I.

More specifically, the artifacts were those of none other than the Harlem Hellfighters.

The Harlem Hellfighters was an all-Black unit that fought in World War I under French command.

James used to put the items on display around New Year’s every year and allowed everyone in the unit to come through and admire the pieces of history.

“We cleaned everything and had an open house for everybody in the unit,” he told The New York Times.

As much as he admired and celebrated the history of Black soldiers who put their lives on the line, it seemed as if the educational system and classic history books didn’t share his enthusiasm.

James’ children were surprised at the gaps in their school’s history curriculum.

One of his sons, Nathaniel James Jr., explained that he noticed something wasn’t proper about the school’s version of events.

He could never find much information about the stories his father told him and the Harlem Hellfighters seemed to be unheard of.

Black army unit overlooked in history books

Credit: Bryan R. Smith for The New York Times

“I asked my teacher about it, and she said the only history they have is about the Buffalo Soldiers,” the 52-year-old said.

“They started seeing history wasn’t proper,” Gen. James said about his children.

So the entire family dedicated their time to doing what the history books failed to do.

James’ sons held parties at the armory in order to raise money while his wife organized dinners and fashion shows where donations were collected.

All the money was used to fund displays for the artifacts.

The artifacts that used to sit in a dark room collecting dust and only seeing daylight on New Year’s were displayed proudly in display cases and beautiful frames around the armory.

Now the artifacts are resting at a temporary new location on Second Avenue and 123rd Street or being kept in storage.

While the situation isn’t ideal, a brighter future for the artifacts is just around the corner.

The State Division of Military and Naval Affairs has inventoried the collection of items and plans to create a “museum grade” exhibition in the newly renovated armory.

While it isn’t likely that academic history books will be rewritten to include more information about the Harlem Hellfighters, the Hellfighters historical society and the James family are taking pride in the fact that the history of those soldiers will be preserved forever.


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