The Harlem Hellfighters Congressional Gold Medal Act would grant what Suozzi calls long overdue recognition of the bravery and outstanding service of the Harlem Hellfighters during World War I.
“They never lost an inch of ground,” Suozzi said. “Suffered many wounds but no one was ever taken as a prisoner of war.”
The Harlem Hellfighters were a black World War I infantry regiment that saw more time in combat than any other American regiment.
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In 1918, the United States Army decided to assign the regiment to the French Army for the duration of American participation in World War I, as many white American soldiers refused to perform combat missions with African Americans. .
Despite their courage, their sacrifices and their devotion to their country, they returned home to face the racism and segregation of their compatriots.
“A great failure of this country is the way we have treated African Americans throughout our history, and this is just another example of that,” Suozzi said.
They were the most famous African-American regiment of World War I, and they were also in the field during World War II.
Suozzi was joined by former Assemblyman Keith Wright, whose grandfather was a Harlem Hellfighter.
“When they came home, it was almost like they had no home to come back to,” Wright said. “They fought for the freedom of another country, but they did not find freedom themselves.”
Most were from Harlem, but 36 soldiers lived in Glen Cove, including Debra Willett’s grandfather, Leander Willlett.
“I could use the words current, awake and ally,” she said. “But the words I want to say, the words: Honor, Gratitude and above all, America.”
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These are words these men deserved to hear long ago, and Suozzi posthumously awarded Leander Willlett a Purple Heart in November 2019.
Also in attendance were former Congressman Charlie Rangel, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, State Senator Brian Benjamin, Congresswoman Inez Dickens and Jeremie Robert, the French Consul General in New York.
“We have fought and died in all wars,” said Rangel, a veteran himself. “To make this country better.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is an award bestowed by the United States Congress, to honor those, individually or as a group, “who have accomplished an achievement which has an impact on American history and culture and which is likely to be recognized as a major achievement in the recipient’s field, long after the accomplishment.”
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