The Ragtime Hellfighter is a novel written by Ernest J. Gaines, published in 1972. It tells the story of an African American World War I veteran who returns to his home town in Louisiana after fighting for France and finds himself struggling to find work as he faces racism and poverty.
The ragtime music was a type of music that came out during the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was composed by African-American composers, and it is considered to be the first truly American art form.
“He was our benefactor and inspiration,” jazz legend Eubie Blake reportedly remarked of James Reese Europe, who spent most of World War I with a baton rather than a gun.
The combat-hardened African American troops onboard the transatlantic liner SS Stockholm had already earned some measure of renown in their country even before the ship arrived in New York Harbor on February 12, 1919—Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, barely three months after World War I ended. They were the 369th Infantry Regiment’s “Harlem Hellfighters,” returning to the United States after more than a year on the Western Front’s terrible battlefields, where they had won their proud nom de guerre, which still distinguishes them today.
For most of the battle, the most renowned Harlem Hellfighter was equipped with a baton rather of a gun. Lieutenant James Reese Europe, known as the Jazz King on two continents, was the unit’s sole African American officer. Along with members of his regimental band, which had electrified all of France throughout the war, he pushed against the ship’s railing. When Europe saw the Statue of Liberty, they asked the band to play “The Star Spangled Banner.” The musicians then swung into “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” as the Stockholm approached the pier to land. All of the troops on board joined in, singing hysterically.
“The syncopated volume of sound that swelled from the Stockholm’s deck found responsive chords in the hearts of the bronzed veterans on the transport and those hundreds of their relatives, friends, and sweethearts from their home district in Harlem, who had chartered the steamer Correction to go down the bay,” wrote a reporter for the New York Tribune, caught up in the moment. In the language of rhythm, swaying bodies, snapping fingers, and inexplicably twisted faces welcomed one other over the small stretch of water.”
Nobody epitomized that rhythm—ragtime rhythm—better than James Reese Europe since the death of jazz prodigy Scott Joplin two years earlier. He was born in Mobile, Alabama in 1881 and reared in Washington, D.C. Jimmy’s parents were both excellent amateur musicians who instilled in him and his brothers a love of classical music by teaching them to play the piano as well as the violin (he studied violin with Enrico Hurlei, the assistant director of the US Marine Band). Jimmy went to New York City in 1904 to pursue his musical training, living in the infamous Tenderloin neighborhood. He was in charge of the African American musicians who were waiting for calls to play at saloons and brothels. He formed the Clef Club, a coherent union, and relocated them to a more respectable waiting area. He provided the musicians regular employment and dubbed their engagements “gigs,” a term he allegedly invented.
On the SS Stockholm, the Harlem Hellfighters and members of another African American infantry unit arrive in New York. (From the National Archives)
Europe led his own Clef Club Symphony Orchestra on May 2, 1912, the biggest African American orchestra to ever perform at Carnegie Hall. The concertmaster of the New York Symphony Orchestra, David Mannes, will never forget the moment Europe stepped onstage. Mannes subsequently remembered, “Big Jim Europe was an incredibly inspirational conductor.” “Of a statuesquely strong frame, he moved with simple and humble elegance, constantly commanding with calm authority this odd assembly before him.” The concert was a huge success, with people from all walks of life crammed into the auditorium, regardless of race. It was also the start of Europe’s ambition of forming a real “National Negro Symphony Orchestra,” as he put it. He’d previously founded the Tempo Club, a famous ragtime band, and supplied music for Vernon and Irene Castle, the country’s most popular dance pair.
While Europe was assembling Harlem’s musicians, the African American population in the city was demanding its own National Guard battalion. New York City boasted almost a dozen militias at the period, ranging from the silk-stocking 7th Regiment on the Upper East Side to the Fighting Irish 69th on Lexington Avenue downtown. The demands from Harlem, however, remained ignored until Governor William “Plain Bill” Sulzer signed legislation allowing a “colored” regiment into law on June 2, 1913. “We Have the Regiment!” ran the headline in the city’s African-American newspaper, the New York Age.
However, no such regiment was established. For years, the legislation was disregarded or forgotten. The situation was changed by Mexican revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Villa and his bandits came into New Mexico in 1916 and slaughtered 18 Americans. President Woodrow Wilson retaliated by sending federal soldiers over the border, commanded by Brigadier General John J. Pershing, to hunt down Villa. Wilson also sent National Guard soldiers from around the country to patrol the Texas-California border. The whole division of New York was sent to the Rio Grande River in southern Texas. Suddenly, the Empire State had almost no National Guard units remaining.
Colonel William Hayward convinced Europe to form a regimental band for his unit. (Getty Images/Underwood Archives)
The lack of citizen troops to defend New York City was quickly noted by William Hayward, an ambitious young assistant district attorney. Hayward, who had managed Republican Charles Whitman’s successful governorship campaign in 1914, located the old law that Sulzer had signed, and he and Lorillard S. Spencer, the governor’s military secretary, persuaded Whitman to form an all-Black regiment with Hayward as its colonel, with the support of the state’s adjutant general. As a result of the governor’s action, the 15th New York Infantry Regiment was formed.
Jim Europe knew he had to join the new regiment the minute he heard about it. He stated to fellow jazzman Noble Sissle, “I have been in New York for 16 years and there has never been such an organization of Negro males that would bring together all kinds of men for a common cause.” “And until there are strong groups of men who stand for something in the community, our race will never amount to anything, politically or economically, in New York or anyplace else. New York cannot afford to miss out on this tremendous opportunity to build such a strong, powerful institution for the development of Harlem’s black manhood.”
Few African Americans, on the other hand, enlisted in the unit. Those who did were forced to march through Harlem with broomsticks instead of guns because they lacked uniforms. Hayward was on the verge of giving up when he discovered one of the enlistees was the renowned conductor Jim Europe. He pleaded with Europe to form a regimental band. He thought that a band led by the renowned ragtime composer would be able to rescue the unit. Europe resisted. He claimed he wanted to be a soldier, not a bandleader. He had previously conducted numerous ensembles, including an orchestra, as a civilian. Why enroll to be a leader among others? However, in order to satisfy Hayward, Europe promised to form a band provided the colonel could fund $10,000. The funds would be used to persuade the regiment’s finest musicians to join. Hayward’s ability to amass such a kingly amount was thought to be unachievable by Europe.
The bandleader, on the other hand, had grossly misjudged the colonel. Hayward was very well connected due to his experience in politics and administration. He reasoned that if he could persuade 100 individuals to contribute $100 apiece, he’d have Europe’s $10,000 in no time. Hayward’s first visit was to meet Daniel G. Reid, the “Tin Plate King,” an industrialist. Reid had made a fortune in the tin plate industry and had partnered with J. P. Morgan to form the United States Steel Corporation. Hayward asked Reid if he would give $100 and write letters to 30 or 40 of his wealthiest friends requesting donations to Hayward’s cause. Instead, Reid gave Hayward a $10,000 check and said, “That’s a damn lot simpler than giving you forty letters of recommendation.”
The ball was now in Europe’s court. “Yes, sir, I gave you my word, so you can count on me,” he said Hayward. Europe began to recruit the best musicians not only in New York but also in Chicago, where he signed crack cornet player Frank De Broit, and even as far away as Puerto Rico, where he recruited 18 first-class instrumentalists, with the help of his friend Noble Sissle, who was now his drum major and lead singer. Several additional players from the well-known Jenkins Orphanage Band of Charleston, South Carolina, including drummers Herbert and Steve Wright, have been added to Europe’s roster (not related). They would prove to be key members of the team.
Second Lieutenant Eugene Mikell conducts the 369th’s band in a performance at French general Henri Gouraud’s headquarters in Châlons-sur-Marne on July 4, 1918, while Europe is leading his machine-gun unit in action. (Getty Images/Adoc-Photos) )
Thousands of people watched Europe’s regimental band march through Harlem’s streets, many of whom hurried off to join at the regiment’s recruitment station, which had taken over a cigar shop. The 15th New York’s ranks were quickly filled. The band’s most famous performance was on June 22, 1917, just after the United States declared war on Germany. The band’s gala performance attracted almost 4,000 people to the Manhattan Casino, a famous nightclub on 155th Street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem. According to Sissle, powder was placed on the dance floor to prevent the hardwood from “burning up when four thousand pairs of feet began shuffling over it.” The dance floor “resembled the Brooklyn Bridge at rush hour,” according to Lester Walton, a writer for the New York Age.
The 15th was quickly summoned back to New York and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the Western Front, ostensibly to keep it out of harm’s way, after a racially contentious training stint at Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina. On a snowy and brutally cold day in Brest, Hayward and his men arrived as the first African American regiment to march into French territory. Instead of going to the front, they were sent to work as ordinary laborers at the port of Saint-Nazaire on the west coast of France. The commander of K Company, Captain Hamilton Fish III, derided it as “pick and shovel labor.” The soldiers assisted in the construction of the port to accommodate American troopships and the arrival of hundreds of eager doughboys. According to a correspondent for the New York Evening World, the soldiers of the 15th “did everything in France but combat.” “They cut down trees, dug trenches, and constructed railroads.”
The soldiers tried to raise their spirits by playing music and singing hymns and other familiar melodies, including ragtime and the most recent combat songs, according to the correspondent. They serenaded the residents of Saint-Nazaire as well as the troops stationed there. “In the dreary existence of the French, Jim Europe’s band created the greatest sort of hit, and the peasants used to travel for kilometers to hear it,” the reporter said, adding that their singing “tickled the French fancy.”
Europe and his band would soon become well-known across France. Representatives of the YMCA’s National War Work Council, director Winthrop Ames and actor E. H. Sothern, were looking for artists to amuse doughboys at a proposed leisure center in Aix-les-Bains, a luxury resort town at the foot of the French Alps. They made a pit break at Saint-Nazaire to see Hayward. When the 15th’s band marched in one night, they were seated in a muddy field. The guys from the YMCA were taken aback by its magnitude. “It became clear very immediately that we were not listening to an average army band at all,” Ames observed, “but to an organization of the very best level, trained and directed by a director of genius.”
Ames was taken aback by Hayward’s response when he inquired who the conductor was. “We inquired his name,” Ames later recounted, “and were informed he was no less a musician than James Reese Europe, who was already well-known in America, but whom we had little expectation of finding a soldier in France.” Ames immediately signed Europe and his band to open in Aix-les-Bains. The subsequent train journey through France’s war-torn landscape, from the sea to the Alps, started with an auspicious overnight stop at Nantes. The residents of the town were prepared. They had arranged a grand reception and evening performance at the city’s opera house in honor of Lincoln’s birthday. The plaza in front of the opera house was overflowing with people. Inside, every seat was taken. Few individuals in France had ever heard ragtime music. When Europe and his band arrived in the plaza and started playing, the crowd erupted. The audience erupted in loud applause after maintaining a respectful quiet throughout the performance of a song.
The band went on to Aix-les-Bains the following day. Along the way, it stopped at Tours, where war reporter and novelist Irwin S. Cobb documented the band’s reaction. Cobb writes, “Music surged in at their ears and ran down to their heels.” “I wanted to weep when the band got to ‘Way Down Upon the Suwanee River.’” He also saw how the song impacted the French peasants, who had already suffered for three years. He claimed that they were openly crying.
The band continued on from Tours, stopping in ten more cities until arriving in Aix-les-Bains on February 15 to a thunderous reception. The military musicians marched through the packed streets of the resort town to the Casino Theater, where they entertained doughboys fresh off the battlefield for the next 16 days, led by the mayor and Major Arthur Little. The troops, some of whom still had trench dirt on their uniforms, were taken aback at first when they were entertained by Black musicians. But as the band started playing George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” the audience leapt up and down, shouting and waving their hats. They shouted, “Play it again!”
Winthrop Ames remembered, “No other kind of amusement appealed to them nearly so strongly.” The contract was extended for another two weeks.
Meanwhile, Hayward got the orders he had been waiting for for his unit. It was transferred to the French Fourth Army, and its numerical identification was altered from 15th to 369th. It was now making its way to the front of the line. Europe and his band were as well. The recreation area’s director took the stage during the final concert. “Tomorrow, these guys, who have brought us so much pleasure for the last month, will go to the front lines to fight in the trenches against…” He was never able to complete his task. Everyone in the auditorium sprang up, shouting and whistling, and snatching flags from balconies and waving them in patriotic enthusiasm. “The Negro troops who had been spit at in Spartanburg stood and bowed—and grinned” on the stage, Little wrote. It had been a long and convoluted trip back to the front. The band had traveled almost 2,000 miles and performed in over 25 cities.
Ragtime had made its way to France.
Europe’s time with the band had come to an end—at least for the time being. He had achieved his ambition to become an armed officer, but he knew it wouldn’t last long. He was quickly sent to Paris, where he rejoined his band and performed in hospitals and in front of French and American government officials. At the same time, the War Department transferred all African American officers of the 369th to other Black regiments, thus leaving Europe as the original 15th New York’s sole African American officer. Noble Sissle, the band’s vocalist and drum major, was promoted to lieutenant and sent to the 370th Infantry as part of that order. He and Europe would not be reunited until the war was over.
Another victory for Europe and his fellow musicians was achieved in Paris. Europe subsequently told Grenville Vernon, a theater critic and well-known Broadway resident, about his debut performance in the French capital: He told Vernon, “What was to be our only concert was at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées.” “The crowd erupted in applause before we had even performed two songs. We had ascended to the throne of Paris.” General Tasker H. Bliss, the US military envoy to the Allied Supreme War Council, sat in the audience alongside high-ranking French commanders, he claimed. Europe said that when they heard the band, they “insisted we remain in Paris, and there we stayed.”
According to the bandleader, the turning point occurred at Tuileries Gardens, when the Hellfighters performed alongside some of the world’s best military bands—the British Grenadiers Band, the Band Garde Républicaine, and the Royal Italian Band—in front of 50,000 people. As Sissle put it, “Ragtimitis” swept throughout France.
Europe felt he and his band “won” France because they were “performing music that was ours, not a weak copy of others.” He was a strong believer in African Americans composing their own music rather than imitating White music. “Our race’s music comes from the soil,” he said to Vernon. He intended to take up where he left off before the war when he returned to the United States.
Europe planned a barnstorming tour across the United States from New York to Pennsylvania, as far west as St. Louis, and then back east to Boston and Harlem, keeping his band intact and adding additional players. The band recorded a record for Pathé before embarking on the trip. The songs featured “Jazz Baby,” “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” “That Moaning Trombone,” “Plantation Echoes,” and “Memphis Blues” by renowned composer W. C. Handy, the internationally acclaimed “Father of the Blues” and Europe’s close friend.
The tour started out with a bang, with every stop selling out. Newspapers lauded the band as the finest in the country. “If Shakespeare had heard Jim Europe’s jazz band at the Academy yesterday afternoon, he would have gone home, dipped his pen in the blackest black ink he could find, and created jazz,” gushed a reviewer for the Philadelphia Evening Ledger, the city’s most popular newspaper.
In 1917, in New York City, the all-black 15th New York Infantry Regiment marches along Fifth Avenue. It was renamed the 369th Infantry Regiment the following year. (Getty Images/Bettmann)
The Hellfighters went by rail from one city to the next for almost two months. They chugged out of Philadelphia and into Boston on May 8, their last show before going home. In Massachusetts, the band would perform in front of the statehouse on Boston Common, with Governor Calvin Coolidge in attendance, to commemorate the Civil War-era all-Black 54th Massachusetts Infantry.
With a strong wind blowing off Boston Harbor, the musicians arrived in the rain. Some of the band members were irritated, and nearly all of them had a glum expression on their faces. Europe had caught a cold and was concerned that it might progress to pneumonia. To make things worse, the location for their first performance, Mechanics Hall, was “extremely chilly and barn-like,” according to Sissle. The afternoon and evening concerts were both canceled due to the torrential rain. The tour was coming to a close with a downbeat. Europe was down in the dumps, and his primary drummer, Herbert Wright, was behaving oddly, walking off stage while his colleagues were performing. Europe yelled to Wright, “Put more pep in the sticks!”
Europe fled the stage to take refuge in a backstage dressing area, leaving Sissle to lead the band. Wright, who suffered from erratic mood swings that may have been worsened by illness or posttraumatic stress disorder, sprang from behind his drums and ran after Europe. (Sissle was close following, knowing something terrible was about to happen.) The two got into a violent fight inside the changing room. Wright brandished a penknife at the composer. He hit Europe in the neck with a reckless backhand stroke, nicking Europe’s carotid artery. The conductor, startled, pulled at his uniform’s tight collar. “A trickle of blood spurted from a tiny wound,” Sissle noticed as he pulled it free.
Europe was whisked away to a hospital in a matter of minutes by an ambulance. “I am going to the hospital, and I will have my wound treated, and I will be at the Common in the morning in time to lead the band,” he murmured to Sissle as he was carried out of Mechanics Hall. There will be no statehouse ceremony, he was mistaken. Europe died that night when doctors were unable to stop the bleeding. With him, his goal of forming a National Negro Symphony Orchestra perished. Wright was convicted of manslaughter but the penalty was lowered due to his decreased mental ability, and he was sentenced to eight years in Massachusetts State Prison.
America lost one of its finest ragtime composers when Europe died. At Arlington National Cemetery, the “fighting bandmaster” who brought music and harmony to America and the battlefields of France was buried with full military honors while a bugler played “Taps.” MHQ
Stephen L. Harris is the author of five books, including Harlem’s Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War I and Harlem’s Hell Fighters: The African-American 369th Infantry in World War II (Potomac Books, 2005).
With the headline: The Hellfighter, this essay appears in the Summer 2023 edition (Vol. 33, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History.
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Frequently Asked Questions
What were the Harlem Hellfighters known for?
The Harlem Hellfighters were a group of African American soldiers that fought in World War I. They were known for their courage and bravery on the battlefield, as well as their commitment to racial equality.
Why was James Reese Europe stabbed?
What was James Reese Europe known for?
James Reese Europe was a jazz musician, singer, and bandleader. He is best known for his work with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra during the swing era of the 1940s and 1950s.
- king of ragtime
- scott joplin