When on May 15, 1918 a French lieutenant warned Henry Johnson of the 369th to move back because of a possible enemy raid, Johnson reportedly replied: "I'm an American, and I never retreat." The story, even if apocryphal, captures the mythic status of the Harlem Rattlers, the African-American combat unit that grew out of the 15th New York National Guard, who were said to have never lost a man to capture or a foot of ground that had been taken. It also, in its insistence on American identity, points to a truth at the heart of this book—more than fighting to make the world safe for democracy, the black men of the 369th fought to convince America to live up to its democratic promise. It is this aspect of the storied regiment's history—its place within the larger movement of African Americans for full citizenship in the face of virulent racism—that Jeffrey T Sammons' Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War brings to the fore.
Honoring the centennial of America’s involvement in World War I, the New-York Historical Society exhibition World War I Beyond the Trenches explores how artists across generations, aesthetic sensibilities, and the political spectrum used their work to depict, memorialize, promote, or oppose the divisive conflict.