Suozzi Gets it Done: Suozzi, Espaillat, Gillibrand, Schumer Legislation to Award the Harlem Hellfighters the Congressional Gold Medal Heads to the President’s Desk
Today, at the 369th Infantry Regiment in Harlem, New York, Congressman Tom Suozzi stood with U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Congressman Adriano Espaillat, state and local elected officials, and descendants of the Harlem Hellfighters to announce that legislation awarding the Harlem Hellfighters the Congressional Gold Medal is on its way to President Joe Biden’s desk to be signed into law.
Suozzi’s efforts to honor the Harlem Hellfighters for their service to our country during World War I started back in 2019 when he first met the Willett family, from Glen Cove, New York, who are the descendants of Harlem Hellfighter Sgt. Leander Willett. Sgt. Willett was stabbed with a bayonet, attacked with mustard gas, yet never received a Purple Heart. During that meeting, Suozzi promised the Willett family that he would get Willett his Purple Heart, which he did, and led efforts in Washington, D.C. to ensure the federal government recognizes the Harlem Hellfighters for their service. This week, Suozzi delivered on that promise, as the Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act passed in the Senate and is now set to become law in the coming weeks.
“It is never too late to do the right thing. When I first met with the Willett Family and heard their stories, I knew we had to get this done – and this week, we got it done! This recognition for the Harlem Hellfighters is long overdue. I am grateful to Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand, and Congressman Espaillat for helping to right this centuries old wrong. This recognition for the Harlem Hellfighters is long overdue,” said Rep. Suozzi.
“It is past time we rightfully recognize and honor the heroes of the 369th Infantry Regiment, who valiantly served our country during World War I,” said U.S. Senator Charles Schumer. “The Harlem Hellfighters fought and sacrificed their lives for our country despite the discrimination they faced from fellow soldiers, and when they came home from battling on the front lines, they were again met with despicable acts of racism. These veterans must be recognized and honored for the heroes that they are. I was proud to cosponsor this legislation to distinguish these brave men for their service with the Congressional Gold Medal.”
“The Harlem Hellfighters served our nation with distinction, spending 191 days in the front-line trenches, all while displaying the American values of courage, dedication and sacrifice,” said Senator Gillibrand. “The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act honors these brave Black men, who, even as they faced segregation and prejudice at home, risked their lives to defend our freedoms overseas. I want to thank my House colleagues Representatives Suozzi and Espaillat for their outstanding partnership on this legislation and I look forward to President Biden signing this bill into law.”
"Today, more than 100 years after their heroic and selfless service to our nation, the Harlem Hellfighters will receive their long overdue and well-deserved Congressional Gold Medal. These patriots gave their all to America's enduring struggle to secure global freedom while simultaneously being cast away from the very nation they swore an oath to protect. Nevertheless, they persevered, and it is never too late to right a wrong. I cannot think of a more deserving group of patriots to receive one of our nation's highest military honors, and I was proud to work alongside Congressman Suozzi as well as Senators Gillibrand and Schumer to make today possible and ensure our country’s most revered patriots will finally receive rightful recognition and their place in America’s history," said Rep. Espaillat.
The proud legacy of my grandfather and all the brave men of the 369th will be resurrected with the passage of this bill. We must take the path they paved and use it for the good of not only our African American community, but the whole of America. The Willett family express their sincere gratitude to Congressman Suozzi for making this happen,” said Deb Willett, Granddaughter of Harlem Hellfighter Leander Willett.
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 Suozzi’s 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 October 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.