Uncovering History: The Discovery at Harlem Armory

A Time Machine Finds Its Way to the Harlem Armory

Built for the black World War I regiment known as the Harlem Hell Fighters, the armory is now undergoing renovations. During the project, workers removing a deteriorating cornerstone found a tin box.

It was a revelation. Burns discovered that the Army had never recorded the unit’s long-held nickname in its records.

History

Located on Fifth Avenue between West 142nd and 143rd Streets, the 369th Regiment Armory was home to the African American National Guard unit known as the Harlem Hell Fighters. During World War I, the soldiers went to France, where they served as part of a French division because white American soldiers refused to fight alongside them (Ziobro).

The armory’s drill shed and administration building, designed by Tachau & Vought and Van Wart & Wein respectively, combine medieval design forms common in New York City’s earlier armories with Art Deco influences. The brickwork is embellished with terra-cotta parapets and motifs featuring maces and stars.

A sealed copper box found by contractors replacing a 99-year-old granite cornerstone in February revealed documents that documented the regiment’s role in history. Among the records was one signed by Black Soldier William Hayward, who was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his heroism in combat (Almanac of Historic Places). Other papers document the city’s commitment to providing the 369th with an armory facility.

Tours

The historic home of the state’s first National Guard Unit to consist exclusively of African American men (nicknamed the Harlem Hell Fighters), the armory building is an iconic symbol of African Americans’ significant military contributions. It has been designated a city landmark and added to the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places. STV provided architectural and engineering design services to restore and preserve the east facade’s colorful and elaborate art deco architecture. Environmental services included abatement of asbestos, lead, PCBs and pigeon guano.

A time capsule found at the 369th Regiment Armory, built for Albany Medal of Honor recipient Henry Johnson’s famed “Hell Fighters” in 1921-24, will be opened on Thursday, August 4. The box contains a variety of items that highlight not only the history of the Hell Fighters but the accomplishments of African American soldiers. It also includes five issues of the New York Age, the weekly African-American newspaper that covered the awarding of the Croix de Guerre to Pvt. Johnson.

Museum

A time capsule discovered at the armory by construction crews is now on display. When workers removed the decaying cornerstone with 1922 chiseled on it, they discovered a hollowed-out space and a box inside.

Museum Director Courtney Burns said she was surprised to find so many items still intact. She said the newspaper clippings, two typewritten histories of the 369th U.S. Infantry and documents reflect the pride of African-Americans in New York City as the Harlem Renaissance got underway.

The Albany resident Henry Johnson, the first African American to receive the Medal of Honor, was part of the 369th. He was a member of the unit that earned the nickname “Hell Fighters” during World War I, when it spent 191 days in front-line trenches without ever retreating and won 170 French Croix de Guerre awards for heroism. Originally the 15th New York National Guard Infantry, the Black Soldiers were commanded by white officers and fought as part of a French division.

Events

The Armory hosts over 100 track and field meets each year to promote fitness, a love of sport and pursuit of excellence. It is also home to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame and offers a variety of community support programs for New York City youth.

A time capsule was placed at the building at 142nd Street and Fifth Avenue in 1933 to commemorate the 369th Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hell Fighters,” for its extraordinary military valor during World War I. It contains documents that focused not only on the 369th, but also on broader themes of African-American accomplishments.

Children from the neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Inwood and Harlem are invited to a fun afternoon at The Armory. They will have the opportunity to run on the world’s fastest indoor track and participate in other fun activities. The event is held on Sunday, October 29. Click here for details. The Armory also hosts the annual WHGF gymnastics invitational, which gives students an opportunity to compete for their families and friends.

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