On April 6, 1917, the United States joined the Great War on the side of the Allied powers, offering hope that America’s might could break a stalemate that had locked the nations of Europe in a bloody stalemate since August, 1914. Millions of American soldiers boarded ships and sailed over U-Boat-infested waters to fight in the hell that was trench warfare. Of those men, 116,000 were killed and 320,000 were wounded.
The first Americans to join the war were black “buffalo soldiers” who fought in segregated units. Unlike in the subsequent war, where they were not allowed, African-Americans were organized into fighting infantry regiments and sent into combat.
Trenton-based re-enactor Algernon Ward Jr. has dedicated himself to portraying one of those buffalo soldiers, Needham Roberts, a black teenager from Trenton who earned France’s highest military honor for valor in combat, the Croix de Guerre.
Ward, a Trenton activist, former school board member, and former City Council candidate, is best known as a re-enactor who portrays black soldiers at the Old Barracks museum, and at area schools and various history events. In 2016 Ward made headlines when he came under real gunfire, not on the battlefield, but near his North Trenton home. A stray bullet from a shooting down the street hit Ward in the shoulder. Ward, who recovered from the injury, vowed not to leave Trenton due to the violence in his neighborhood. “If they shoot me in the right shoulder, I am going to swing with my left,” he told reporters.
Ward will be one of many re-enactors portraying black soldiers at an upcoming event at Trenton’s Old Barracks museum. “Four Centuries of African-American Soldiers” takes place Saturday, and Sunday, February 29 and March 1, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be re-enactors of soldiers all the way from the Revolutionary War up to the first Gulf War. Ward will give a presentation on Sunday at 2:15 p.m. For more information, visit www.barracks.org.
Needham (Sometimes spelled “Neadom”) Roberts grew up on Wilson Street in Trenton, a side street off Pennington Avenue near Union Baptist Church in North Trenton. His father was Reverend Norman Roberts. By age 15 he had already worked as a bellhop and a soda jerk at a drugstore. As war with Germany was brewing, Roberts jumped at the chance to join the Army. He made his way to Brooklyn, where he joined the 15th New York National Guard, an all-black regiment known as the Black Rattlers.
Ward, who has seemingly read everything ever published on Roberts, says the regiment that Roberts joined would become well known for its cultural as well as military achievements. “The National Guard at the time was a cushy job,” Ward explained. “You would show up on a couple of weekends and get a nice little check. If it’s not wartime, you march around a little and it’s a part-time job.”
In those cushy pre-war years, the Rattlers’ secret weapon was their band, led by James Reese Europe, a star of the Harlem jazz scene who had become what Ward describes as “The Jay-Z of his time” by having the band play his unique ragtime style of music in New York venues. “He was highly sought after during this period,” Ward says.
Because of the Rattler band’s popularity, the 15th New York met its 1,000-man recruitment goal almost immediately and was thus one of the first units that was ready to be shipped overseas. According to research by Gilbert Wayne Hedgepeth, a great nephew by marriage of Roberts who wrote a book called “African-American Heroes 1776-1919 The Story of Sergeant Neadom Roberts,” Roberts was not among those who joined the regiment due to the band’s popularity. In fact, he enlisted months before Europe formed the band.
Before the regiment could be sent into the meat grinder of the Western Front, they had to train, and that is where the Rattlers’ difficulties began.
The unit was sent to training at Camp Whitman, in upstate New York. By October it was getting cold. Ordinarily this posed no difficulty, as the camp had cold-weather barracks facilities, but the camp’s commandant would only let white soldiers stay there. He told the Rattlers to set up camp outside.
The Rattlers’ white officers did not relish the prospect of spending the winter in freezing cold tents, so they had the unit transferred to a warmer climate: Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Unfortunately, this was “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” The United States at the time was still deeply segregated, nowhere more so than the Deep South. Spartanburg was a “sundown town” where black people were not welcome to walk the streets at night and could be beaten up or arrested for doing so. The Rattlers were used to the slightly better race relations that existed in places like Harlem, where they were raised. “They didn’t know that you didn’t look a white person in the face,” Ward said. “They didn’t know that you had to step off the curb when a white person was coming … They just didn’t have that upbringing, so there was some culture clash that was going on there.”
The Rattlers soon got into conflicts with the civilians of Spartanburg as well as other Army units training there. One of the soldiers was beat up in town. Meanwhile, one of the other units at the base had a history of its own that went back to the Civil War, where they had fought for the Confederacy against the 15th New York. The two units started trading threats. One of the Rattler’s officers, Hamilton Fish, said he would issue live ammo to his men if any of the southerners came to his camp looking for trouble.
The War Department, eager to avoid bloodshed between its own units, sent the Rattlers back north to New Jersey at the first opportunity. There, they helped build facilities at Camp Dix (which later became Fort Dix).
In early 1918 the Rattlers embarked for Europe aboard a converted coal transport called the Pocahontas. White regiments making the voyage had been sent off with pomp and circumstance, but the black soldiers left New York under cover of night with only their wives and girlfriends at the dock to see them off.
The ship was beset by delays, first by pea-soup fog that trapped them in New York harbor, then by an engine fire that forced them back to port for repairs. When they next voyaged out, a barge slammed into the vessel, knocking a 12-foot hole in its side. Unwilling to go back to port again, the crew made repairs during the crossing to France.
When the Rattlers disembarked, they were greeted by a whole new social order. While they were often treated with disdain at home, the French greeted them with cheers and gifts. The French also appreciated American culture, especially the new jazz music that Europe’s band was playing. The band played concerts all over France and Switzerland and was even invited to play at Buckingham Palace in England.
The commander of the American Expeditionary Force, Black Jack Pershing, tried to discourage this warm welcome. In a secret letter to his French counterparts, the American commander warned French generals not to compliment black soldiers too highly, especially in front of white officers, and to keep women away from them because, he said, they had a penchant for rape. He further asked the French not to treat them too well, lest they become spoiled when they eventually returned home. The letter was leaked and was widely published, including by an outraged black press back in the United States.
The Rattlers were inducted into the regular army and designated the 369th Infantry Regiment. At first, they were tasked with doing labor such as unloading ships. But the French, having lost millions of men already in the war, were desperate for manpower to feed into the war machine.
The Americans, still arriving and still training for war, were not ready for battle at that point. But Pershing, while he generally insisted on keeping American troops under American control, agreed to put the 369th under the command of the French, who issued them French weapons and equipment and trained them alongside French soldiers. Officers even issued commands to the men in French.
That is how the 369th ended up being one of the first American units to see combat in the trenches of northern France.
During this time, the black fighters developed a reputation for bravery, bolstered in great part by the actions of Roberts and a fellow soldier, Henry Johnson.
Roberts and Johnson were stationed in the Argonne forest, where French and Germans, each dug in trenches, faced one another across the deadly expanse of no man’s land, a ruined and cratered landscape swept by machine gun fire and churned into muck by the explosions of artillery shells.
One night the two soldiers were stationed at the midnight to 4 a.m. shift at an isolated listening post, where their job was to watch for the approach of enemy raiders. Shortly into their shift, the two were forced to take cover from German snipers. Soon, they heard the “snip snip” sound of someone cutting barbed wire: the Germans were attacking the isolated position.
Roberts and Johnson started throwing grenades, and the unseen Germans replied in kind, causing an explosion that injured and stunned Roberts. The German patrol advanced on the two men, intent on capturing Roberts and bringing him back as a prisoner. Heavily outnumbered, Johnson fought back using his rifle as a club and stabbing with his huge, meat cleaver-like bolo knife that French soldiers carried.
Eventually Roberts recovered and started throwing grenades, but both had been hit by gunshots and shrapnel from the enemy. The Germans, having had enough of Johnson’s hand-to-hand fighting and Roberts’ grenades, retreated. The next morning, French soldiers estimated the size of the enemy force at around 20 men, with the two American soldiers having killed four.
Roberts and Johnson became the first Americans to earn France’s highest military honor, the Croix de Guerre, for their valor. The American press seized on the story, too, as an early story of American bravery and fighting spirit.
The rest of the unit acquitted itself well in combat, earning the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters.”
Due to the severity of their wounds, Roberts and Johnson were taken off the front lines to recover. After eventually returning home, they toured the country raising war bonds. Along the way, their story became exaggerated. Henry Johnson, at five foot six and 135 pounds, was given the nickname “The Black Death.”
“This is not a hulking, muscular figure,” Ward says. “This was a normal-sized guy. When you’re fighting desperately for your life, you can be a pretty dangerous person.” With each retelling, the number of Germans who attacked “The Black Death” seemed to increase.
Upon returning to the U.S., black soldiers faced the same prejudice that had been there when they left. Absurdly, Roberts was denied a purple heart medal because an officer at a hospital in Cape May refused to acknowledge that black soldiers had fought in battle at all.
When the rest of the Harlem Hellfighters came back, they were welcomed as heroes with a ticker-tape parade in New York. But even this was marred by reminders of a divided society: the disembarking soldiers were faced with a sign on the pier directing whites in one direction, blacks in another.
Needham Roberts returned to Trenton, where the citizens hailed him as a hero. The city threw him a parade and gave him a gold watch. A newspaper surveyed Trentonians on what they liked most about their city, and one of the more frequent responses was its association with war hero Needham Roberts.
“They said, ‘oh, we don’t like the dirty streets and the pigs in the yard, but Roberts is from Trenton and he won the Croix de Guerre. So he was a source of pride for the community,” Ward says.
Together, he and Johnson earned a living by telling their story during intermission at silent movies.
Unfortunately, the two soldiers’ glory quickly faded.
Roberts was arrested, accused of molesting two girls, aged 12 and 14. He was acquitted of the charges but suspicion took a toll on his life. His wife left him, and he had difficulty finding work.
The accounts of Roberts and Johnson began to diverge over who did what in the battle. A pamphlet, purportedly authored by Roberts, goes so far as to omit the part of the story where Roberts fell unconscious and Johnson saved him. (Hedgepeth doubts that the pamphlet was really written by Roberts due to several inaccuracies in it.)
Both Roberts and Johnson were arrested for wearing their Army uniforms after being discharged from the military.
Johnson descended into alcohol abuse and died 10 years after the war in a VA hospital. In 1949 Roberts, then remarried, was accused of bothering a young girl at a movie theater. Before he could be tried for this crime, he and his new wife hung themselves in the basement of their home in Newark.
Roberts proclaimed his innocence of both crimes and Hedgepeth said some followers of Roberts’s story believe he was the victim of institutional racism.
Despite his fall from grace, memory of the man Roberts once was apparently had not completely faded: more than 500 people attended his funeral.
“The point here is that human beings are imperfect, period,” Ward says. “Even our heroes have flaws, period. That’s what makes history so fascinating. It’s the story of what human beings did under certain circumstances. And if we look for the perfect hero, I don’t think we’ll ever find it … There was one perfect guy we knew about, and they hung him on a cross, so everyone else is going to have flaws. And it’s for us as re-enactors and history buffs to tell the story as it is.”
Four Centuries of African American Soldiers, Old Barracks Museum, 101 Barrack Street, Trenton. Saturday and Sunday, February 29 and March 1, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. $10. 609-396-1776 or www.barracks.org.
The schedule of events is as follows:
Saturday, February 29:
Stories of the 54th. Reenactor Sergeant Major Louis Carter Jr. shares the true stories of the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment that was featured in the movie “Glory.” 11 a.m.
They Were Good Soldiers. Historian John U. Rees discusses the contributions of African American Soldiers in the Continental Army from his book, “They Were Good Soldiers.” 1:15 p.m.
The 5th Platoon. U.S. Marine Corps veteran and reenactor Sergeant Art Collins recalls the exploits of the Black GIs who served during World War II. 2:15 p.m.
Four Centuries of African American Soldiers Firing Line. Soldiers fire a salute to the fallen heroes who faithfully served in the Armed Forces of the United States. 3 p.m.
Sunday, March 1:
Ebony Doughboys in The Great War. Reenactor Kelly Washington shares the stories of African American soldiers in World War I. 11 a.m.
Black Jacks. U.S. Navy veteran and reenactor Leon B. Brooks tells the saga of America’s Black sailors. 1:15 p.m.
Trenton’s Harlem Hellfighter. Reenactor Algernon Ward Jr. tells the story of one of the first Americans decorated for valor in World War I, Trenton’s own hero, Needham Roberts. 2:15 p.m.
Four Centuries of African American Soldiers Firing Line. Soldiers fire a salute to the fallen heroes who faithfully served in the Armed Forces of the United States. 3:15 p.m.
To hear more about Needham Roberts and other fascinating and obscure stories from Central New Jersey’s past, listen to our podcast called “Forgotten History,” which you can find wherever you listen to podcasts or at soundcloud.com/forgottenhistory.
Editor’s note: This story was changed from the originally published version. It contains several corrections based on research that Hedgepeth shared with U.S. 1 after the story was published. The original version speculated that Roberts joined the Rattlers due to the popularity of Reese’s band. Hedgepeth discovered that this was impossible due to the date he enlisted. The article also said that Roberts had taken money his father had given him to pay a poll tax and used it to travel to New York. New Jersey never had a poll tax. This detail came from the pamphlet ‘Brief Adventures of the First American Soldiers Decorated in the World War as told by Neadom Roberts.’ purportedly authored by Roberts but whose authenticity is disputed by Hedgepeth. The original version also erroneously stated that Roberts enlisted in Albany.